Noshir Contractor (Photo by Andrew Campbell)
In online worlds — where people get together to slay dragons, buy and sell goods, chat, and just, well, hang out — every interaction leaves a digital trace. For an engineer and social scientist like Noshir Contractor, those digital traces are a treasure trove.
Contractor — who is the Jane S. and William White Professor of Behavioral Science with appointments in industrial engineering and management sciences, communication studies, and management and organizations — studies networks: how and why they are formed. By collaborating with other experts and mining online game data logs for clues, he’s beginning to find surprising results about online interactions that translate into how we think about networks in the real world.
“The motivation for this comes from the observation that sometimes groups come together and are incredibly successful — and sometimes they are not,” he says.
“What makes the difference? This sort of social network analysis tries to find out how to improve our ability as a society to assemble effective teams.”
Contractor and his collaborators — who include scientists and engineers from around the country — are studying nearly 60 terabytes of data from EverQuest II, a massive multiplayer online role-playing fantasy game in which players complete quests and socialize with one other. The researchers analyzed this data along with a survey of 7,000 players, making it one of the largest social science projects ever performed. (Researchers didn’t know the real identities of any of the players from the logs or surveys nor the content of their interactions — just their actions and interactions.)
“In many ways it’s a microcosm of our existence in the general social world,” Contractor says.
Contractor’s group has mined the data logs from EverQuest II to look for “structural signatures” that indicate different kinds of social network configurations. These configurations can then be tested to see if social network theories discovered in offline networks ring true online.
“Up until now, testing these theories has involved labor-intensive interviews that don’t get a real sense of a person’s network,” says Contractor.
A quest for data
By matching up survey results with anonymous player data, researchers found that many players underestimate the amount of time they spend playing the games. They also found that women don’t like to play with other women but are generally the most dedicated and satisfied players. And they found that players aren’t just teenagers — in fact, the average age of a player is substantially higher.
What surprised Contractor most was that, even though players could play the game with anyone anywhere, most people played with people in their general geographic area. “People end up playing with people nearby, often with people they already know,” Contractor says. “It’s not creating new networks. It’s reinforcing existing networks.
You can talk to anyone anywhere, and yet individuals 10 kilometers away from each other are five times more likely to be partners than those who are 100 kilometers away from each other.”