Social interactions in MMORPGS take the form of in-game communication, virtual behaviors, and the development of interpersonal and group relationships. In massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), cooperation between players to accomplish difficult tasks is often an integral mechanic of gameplay, and organized groups of players, often called guilds, clans, or factions, emerge. Sometimes the relationships players from within the game spill over into friendships or romantic relationships in the material world. In other instances, romantic partners and groups of material world friends find that playing together strengthens their bonds.
MMORPG players take on an avatar, a humanoid graphical representation of themselves, in the game. Players usually have great latitude in designing the physical appearance, gender, and race of their avatar. Players also select their role, profession or class, each of which comes with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. Games scholar Nick Yee classifies avatars into two categories, a projection or idealization of one's identity or an experiment with a new identity. The avatar, as a representation of the self, creates the first impression and is the first means of communicating with other players.
Communication between players typically takes the form of typed chat and the animated gestures and expressions of the avatar.
In a study performed by Nick Yee, 39.4% of male respondents and 53.3% of female respondents rated their MMORPG friends as comparable or better than their material world friends. There are a number of theories about why strong relationships form in virtual worlds. The players in these environments are likely to already have much in common. For example, in one study 36% of respondents work in the IT industry and 68% of respondents have experience with table-top role-playing games. In addition to sharing professional and entertainment interests, players are also likely to share common personality traits associated with these fields.
The high-stress crisis scenarios that groups encounter in combat-oriented play, paired with player's emotional investment in the environment, may build trust among the players. MMORPG's also rely on fantastic metaphors and cultural myths, including ideas of chivalric romance, that encourage idealization of persons and relationships.
The restricted nature of the communication between players may allow a sender to carefully craft their self-presentation and the receiver may inflate the relatively few pieces of communication into an idealized picture of the sender. Because avatars are capable of only a subset of human gestures and expressions miscommunication or slippages in coordination (i.e. communication that is overlapping, missed, or late) do occur.
Although perceptions of these virtual interactions are often inaccurate, the lack of cues and increased control over how a player presents themselves sometimes facilitate romantic relationships. In-game marriage ceremonies are one way that players express affection for one another. An in-game marriage may also represent a strategic alliance or other storytelling mechanism.
However, some relationships initiated in the game environment carry over to the material world. According to Nicholas Yee, 15.7% of male MMORPG players and 5.1% of female MMORPG players physically dated someone they met in an MMORPG.
In MMORPGs, players can choose what type of character they want to play and design their appearance. One potential positive side effect of that is difficulty in stereotyping, as all players have equal ability to design themselves, regardless of their initial appearance. There is also the potential for "identity tourism". The choice to enact oneself as a light-skinned male elf, say, could allow a black female player to appropriately role-play her character in the desired fashion without being rejected by the community. Anonymity may encourage deviance from the game's objectives and the group's decisions, as most MMORPG players feel safe from repercussions in the material world.
Many players of both genders find themselves gender-switching while creating an online avatar. This allows for more freedom of expression in ways that real life cannot incorporate. Despite the gender of the player, studies show that players tend to adhere to the gender roles of their avatar's gender and even purposefully choose to be that gender because of how it changes the way they are treated. Some players express that they gender-switch because they get to experiment with looks and behaviors they would not get to in real life. Gender-switching on the Internet is not a new phenomenon and has been occurring since the early days of online interaction. Players often claim that gender-switching, despite imposed or purposeful gender-role-fulfillment, has helped to change their outlook on gameplay.
MMORPGs function as communication platforms not unlike social media. As such, the CIA expressed worries about the use of MMORPGs as a secret communications channel for terrorists. On February 15, 2008, the office of the Director of National Intelligence provided Congress with the Data Mining Report. In this report the existence of the so-called Reynard Project was disclosed. The aim of the Reynard Project is described as follows:
"Reynard is a seedling effort to study the emerging phenomenon of social (particular terrorist) dynamics in virtual worlds and large-scale online games and their implications for the Intelligence Community. The cultural and behavioral norms of virtual worlds and gaming are generally unstudied. Therefore, Reynard will seek to identify the emerging social, behavioral and cultural norms in virtual worlds and gaming environments. The project would then apply the lessons learned to determine the feasibility of automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual World. If it shows early promise, this small seedling effort may increase its scope to a full project."
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