David Kirkpatrick

July 3, 2009

Second Life contributes to social research

I’ve blogged on MMORPGs and social research here and here amonst other times, and I still find it fascinating — although not surprising — that university research is turning to virtual communities for social research. It’s real people interacting and simply by its nature everything collected is both data rich and pre-formatted for the most part. A researchers dream.

The latest release on virtual communities and social research (aside from dk: I spotted a typo in the release. Can you find it?):

Second Life data offers window into how trends spread

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Do friends wear the same style of shoe or see the same movies because they have similar tastes, which is why they became friends in the first place? Or once a friendship is established, do individuals influence each other to adopt like behaviors?

Social scientists don’t know for sure. They’re still trying to understand the role social influence plays in the spreading of trends because the real world doesn’t keep track of how people acquire new items or preferences.

But the virtual world Second Life does. Researchers from the University of Michigan have taken advantage of this unique information to study how “gestures” make their way through this online community. Gestures are code snippets that Second Life avatars must acquire in order to make motions such as dancing, waving or chanting.

Roughly half of the gestures the researchers studied made their way through the virtual world friend by friend.

“We could have found that most everyone goes to the store to buy gestures, but it turns out about 50 percent of gesture transfers are between people who have declared themselves friends. The social networks played a major role in the distribution of these assets,” said Lada Adamic, an assistant professor in the School of Information and the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Adamic is an author of a paper on the research that graduate student Eytan Bakshy will present on July 7 at the Association for Computer Machinery’s Conference on Electronic Conference in Stanford, Calif. Bakshy is a doctoral student in the School of Information.

“There’s been a high correspondence between the real world and virtual worlds,” Adamic said. “We’re not saying this is exactly how people share in the real world, but we believe it does have some relevance.”

This study is one of the first to model social influence in a virtual world because of the rarity of having access to information about how information, assets or ideas propagate. In Second Life, the previous owner of a gesture is listed.

The researchers also found that the gestures that spread from friend to friend were not distributed as broadly as ones that were distributed outside of the social network, such as those acquired in stores or as give-aways.

And they discovered that the early adopters of gestures who are among the first 5-10 percent to acquire new assets are not the same as the influencers, who tend to distribute them most broadly. This aligns with what social scientists have found.

“In our study, we sought to develop a more rigorous understanding of social processes that underlies many cultural and economic phenomena,” Bakshy said. “While some of our findings may seem quite intuitive, what I find most exciting is that we were actually able to test some rather controversial and competing hypotheses about the role of social networks in influence.”

The researchers examined 130 days worth of gesture transfers in late 2008 and early 2009. They looked at 100,229 users and 106,499 gestures. They obtained the data from Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life. Personally-identifying information had been removed.

 

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The paper is called, “Social Influence and the Diffusion of User-Created Content.” The research is funded by the National Science Foundation. Physics graduate student Brian Karrer is also a co-author.

For more information:

Full text of paper:
http://www-personal.umich.edu/~ladamic/

ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce:
http://www.sigecom.org/ec09/

February 15, 2009

Everquest and social research

My previous blog post was on using the internet for social research, and here is a study using Everquest II for just that on organizing networks in communities. Interesting work in the online social research area already.

The release from yesterday:

Surprising results: Virtual games players stick close to home

In the real world, tracking a person’s social network — which could include hundreds of contacts that serve different purposes — is nearly impossible.

But in online virtual games like EverQuest II, where tens of thousands of people leave digital traces as they chat with one another, perform quests together, form groups and buy and sell goods, researchers have found a gold mine of networking data.

That’s where social scientist and engineer Noshir Contractor comes in. Contractor, the Jane S. and William J. White Professor of Behavioral Sciences at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University, and his collaborators are studying nearly 60 terabytes of data from EverQuest II, a fantasy massive multiplayer online role-playing game where players complete quests and socialize with each other.

The researchers analyzed this data along with a survey of 7,000 players — making it one of the largest social science research projects ever performed, Contractor said.

Contractor will discuss their surprising results in a presentation titled “Social Drivers for Organizing Networks in Communities,” which will be part of the “Analyzing Virtual Worlds: Next Step in the Evolution of Social Science Research” symposium from 8:30 to 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 14, at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting in Chicago. The symposium will be held in Columbus GH, Hyatt Regency Chicago, 151 East Wacker Drive.

The group has mined the data logs from the game to look for “structural signatures” that indicate different kinds of social network configurations.

“We can see whom these players talked to, whom they played with, and all the other interactions and transactions they had,” Contractor said. “In many ways it’s a microcosm of our existence in the general social world.”

The researchers found that many players underestimate the amount of time they spend playing the games, and the number of players who say they are depressed is disproportionately high. They also found that women don’t like to play with other women but are generally the most dedicated and satisfied players. And players aren’t just teenagers — in fact, the average age of a player is substantially higher.

But what most surprised Contractor 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 said. “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.”

Worldwide, nearly 45 million people play massive multiplayer online role-playing games like EverQuest II, and the amount of real-world money associated with virtual worlds would make it the seventh largest country in the world according to gross domestic product.

“This is not a trivial issue,” Contractor said. “Now that we have the computing power to study these networks, we can explore different theories about social processes on a scale that was never possible before.”

 

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August 9, 2008

Real health study in virtual world

Filed under: et.al., Media, Science — Tags: , , , , , — David Kirkpatrick @ 7:34 pm

This is both interesting and maybe a harbinger of the future. An actual health study will be conducted in the virtual world of Second Life.

The linked press release:

TORC at UH turns to virtual world of Second Life for new study

International Health Challenge seeks participants for obesity prevention research

The University of Houston department of health and human performance is launching an international effort to recruit 500 participants for a study promoting healthy dietary habits and physical activity. The study will take place entirely in the virtual world of Second Life (SL).

The project is part of the UH Texas Obesity Research Center’s (TORC) International Health Challenge, and offers an enjoyable way for participants to learn about preventing and treating obesity through education, skills training and outreach.

“This is an excellent opportunity to learn and practice these new behaviors in a virtual environment and in real life,” said Rebecca Lee, associate professor and director of TORC. “It’s also a great place to meet other avatars and share information and experiences.”

The TORC International Health Challenge in Second Life will provide opportunities for avatars to earn Lindens—the currency of Second Life—for walking on treadmills, riding bikes and trying new fruits and vegetables in Second Life. Participants compete to earn “Challenge Points” for their healthy behaviors. The country team that earns the most Challenge Points will win the International Health Challenge. Materials will be available in English, French and Spanish.

TORC was an awardee of the University of Southern California-Annenberg School for Communication’s Network Culture Project: Second Life and the Public Good Community Challenge. TORC will develop space in Second Life, create games and interactive learning opportunities and reward avatars when they join the International Health Challenge and participate in health behaviors in Second Life.

“We hope to develop multi-national collaborations in SL to increase awareness, knowledge, skills and support for healthy living,” Lee said. “Reducing obesity is an international priority, and SL provides a portal to an international community.” Lee has conducted extensive research on the subject of obesity, in particular the neighborhood factors that may lead to obesity, such as availability and quality of fresh produce, and the quality and quantity of physical activity resources available in neighborhoods.

 

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Participants must be members of Second Life and can visit http://slurl.com/secondlife/HHP%20at%20UH/128/128/0 to sign up.

For more information, participants can instant message Sirina Felisimo or Samu Sirnah in Second Life or call TORC at 713-743-9310.

For more information about TORC at the University of Houston, please visit: http://grants.hhp.coe.uh.edu/obesity/