Back to Worldplay Project Overview

What is the purpose of this research project?

This project explores issues associated with cross-cultural interactions in virtual worlds. Our goal is to identify creative ways that players, game developers, and industry professionals can nurture and extend transnational cooperation in virtual worlds.
During the past five years, dozens of researchers have scrutinized virtual worlds. How is this project any different?

Great question. For the most part, existing research on virtual worlds falls into one of a few categories. On the one hand, there are deep ethnographic studies in which researchers immerse themselves in subcultures associated with a particular virtual world (e.g. Taylor, 2006; Boellstorf, 2008; Malaby, 2009). While we appreciate and value the textured analysis emerging from such studies, our project does not use ethnographic methods.

There are also many helpful studies that combine traditional survey methods with the analysis of server-side data logs. The most recent studies (e.g. Williams, Consalvo, Caplan & Yee, 2009; Williams, Yee & Caplan, 2008; Bell, Castranova & Wagner, 2009) have leveraged random sampling methods and vendor-relationships to deepen our understanding of gamer demographics and motivations. We are intrigued by these studies, but this project does not use random sampling methods and we do not analyze server logs. We are not attempting to make statistically valid generalizations about the broader gaming universe.

OK. So the Worldplay project does not use ethnographic methods and it does not use quantitative methods for analyzing large data sets. What exactly are you doing?
We are fanning out across virtual worlds and casting as broad a net as possible to increase our understanding of transnational player interactions. In an open-ended survey, we are asking people to share their thoughts about their on-line interactions with gamers from other countries. We ask people to describe both positive and negative experiences, and encourage them to share suggestions about ways that gamers, developers and scholars can foster transnational interaction in virtual worlds.
But isn't this rather slap-dash? If you cannot generalize your results to a broader population of gamers, what's the point?

We firmly believe that every voice -- including statistical outliers -- deserves to be heard. Our goal is to identify a wide range of opinions, experiences and recommendations related to the phenomenon of transnational play. In synthesizing and publicly sharing our findings, we hope to provide suggestive data points that can be used by developers, gamers, and researchers who are interested in promoting cross-cultural interaction in virtual worlds.

In many ways, our approach is analogous to the guerilla usability testing methods recommended by Jakob Nielsen in the early 1990s. Rather than developing generalized claims about a large group of users, we seek to collect as many data points as possible. Rather than using our research as the basis for theory building, we are interested in ways our findings can be applied to the gritty realities of game development and guild management.

Some advocates of transnational gaming have bashed industry practices that inhibit cross-cultural interaction in virtual worlds. Is this your intent?

Definitely not. We are sensitive to the many demands placed on developers. Although we are saddened by the practice of region locking, we understand the legitimate business reasons that inhibit transnational interaction.

We have no desire to scapegoat our colleagues in the gaming industry. After all, without game developers, none of us would be here in the first place. Players, scholars and government policymakers can also play a crucial role in nurturing cross-cultural collaboration in virtual worlds.

This sounds very idealistic. Is it really possible to make these types of changes?

Two decades ago, the concept of an enormous, user-generated encyclopedia would have sounded very idealistic, but we now have Wikipedia. In the 1980s, the idea of a free, collaboratively developed operating system would have sounded very idealistic, but we now have Linux, Free BSD, and dozens of related open source projects. Our ambitions in this project are far more modest.

The Worldplay Survey itself is an example of how globally distributed individuals can cooperate with one another. Within one day of launching, volunteers offered to translate our survey into Chinese, German, Spanish and Japanese.

What sorts of recommendations do you plan to make?

We hope to identify simple steps that can help create momentum. For example, consider the game Free Realms. Launched several months ago by Sony, the world already boasts 3 million subscribers from around the world. The game's player base is extremely international, and players use the general chat channels to communicate in multiple languages. But there is one glaring problem: cut and paste functions are disabled in Free Realms.

Without the ability to cut and paste, it's very difficult for players to communicate across language barriers. If cut and paste were enabled, players could switch into another browser window and use automatic translation tools to understand what other players are saying. This would be an important step forward.

This sounds great. What can I do to help?
If you are over the age of 18 and interested in participating in our research, take the survey! You can also take a look around this site, leave a comment on our forum, or explore (and comment on) the researcher's blogs. We are also eager to translate our survey into more languages, and could use help translating survey responses back into English.
Will you share findings with the public?
Definitely. We have already started sharing raw data (with personally identifiable information removed) via this site.
Related links

"Regional Segregation"
In a thought-provoking article for MMORPG.COM, Dana Massey explores region-locking and transnational gaming. The comments thread is terrific.

The Multicultural Aspect of MMORPGs
The author of a popular gaming blog discusses the joys of playing games with people from other countries. In the comments thread, Brian "Psychochild" Green explains the reasons for region-locking from the standpoint of a independent game developer.

State of Play V: Building the Global Metaverse
In 2007, scholars, developers and government officials from around the world congregated in Singapore to discuss transnational interaction in virtual worlds. Organized by New York Law School, in conjunction with Trinity University, with the support of Harvard Law School, Yale Law School, and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, the conference itself demonstrates the potential of transnational collaboration. (Note: Links on the left side of the State of Play page will take you away from the Singapore conference. To view the video clips and conference program, you need to scroll down on the right side of the frame.)

Last modified: February 12, 2010