Social Capital in MMOs?

In the last post I discussed the pitfalls inherent in thinking about virtual worlds and the "real" world in a dichotomous manner. An interesting issue that the mapping question raises is the question of efficacy of models from one domain in the other domain. One such issue that I have become interested in lately is the issue of social capital in MMOs. In sociology Social capital refers to the benefits or advantages that a person can gain by the virtue of their position within a social network. There are multiple ways of defining social capital and given that it can quite difficult quantify tangible benefits in the real world, there is even controversy in the community with respect to whether social capital is even a useful concept or not. In the network view of social capital however, researchers has used many graph theoretic measures like centrality, closeness, network constraint index etc to define social capital. Thus in the figure above, the person A in the network on the left hand side of the figure is in an advantageous position since she controls the flow of information from two parts of the network. However the right side shows that because of the formation of new links in the network she can lose that advantage over time.

The majority of the studies on social capital have been descriptive in nature i.e., researchers have used the structure of social networks to describe the relative success of participants in a social network. The main difficulty is with respect to collecting temporal data for social networks as well as a way to quantify success. In this regard MMOs offer an unprecedented opportunity to study this problem because they remove of these barriers to entry. Firstly they offer an unobtrusive way to collect data about in-game social networks and secondly unlike the offline world where there are multiple confounding elements with respect to how one may define success, MMOs offer a relatively crisp way to define success in terms of how well players perform.

Given the lack of these constraints, in a recent work we showed that the social capital measured in terms of the network constraint index can be used to predict the leveling behavior or players. The most surprising part of the results was that in some cases the predictions are much more accurate as compared to predictions which are based on past behavioral data. This examples illustrates a number of interesting insights. Firstly it demonstrates that a social phenomenon as complex as social capital is also manifested in the online world. While one may think that social networks in MMOs may be sufficiently different from the offline social networks, that is not really the case. Even when people have the opportunity to interact with pretty much any person that they can, they still replicate the social structures which are observed in the offline world. A plausible explanation for this is that people, regardless of the context, are confronted with the same cognitive constraints and thus respond to their environments in a similar manner.

Another implication for studying social capital and related social phenomenon is that from both game design and monetization perspective, there may be are non-obvious factors in the game which may determine how well do players fare in the game - in this case the structure of the social networks. Research has shown that the social networks play a pivotal role in predicting churn in games. This is an obvious observation for anyone who has played MMOs for even a short time with one's friend since the decision of one's friend's to leave or stay within the game. A non-obvious factor here would be if one could show that social capital affects game play which in turn affects one decision to leave a game or stay. This would be a powerful result from a game design perspective as well as it could tie in how socialization, game play and churn are interwined with one another.

Social Capital in MMOs? by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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