The Proteus Paradox

BOOK: The Proteus Paradox
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Copyright © 2014 by Nick Yee.
All rights reserved.
This book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, including illustrations, in any form (beyond that copying permitted by Sections 107 and 108 of the US Copyright Law and except by reviewers for the public press), without written permission from the publishers.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Yee, Nick, 1979–
The proteus paradox : how online games and virtual worlds change us—
and how they don't / Nick Yee.
    p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-300-19099-1 (hardback)
1. Computer games. 2. Virtual reality. 3. Shared virtual environments. I. Title.
GV1469.15.Y44 2014
794.8—dc23           2013024662

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48–1992
(Permanence of Paper).

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

To Doug, for showing me that this was possible



Introduction: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

The New World

Who Plays and Why


The Labor of Fun


The Locker Room Utopia

The “Impossible” Romance

Tools of Persuasion and Control

Introverted Elves, Conscientious Gnomes, and the Quest for Big Data

Changing the Rules

The Hidden Logic of Avatars

Reflections and the Future of Virtual Worlds


Glossary of Online Gaming Terms



Throughout my research career, I've been incredibly fortunate to have had supportive and prescient mentors who helped me think about and study online games and virtual worlds in new ways. At Haverford College in 1998, Doug Davis's course on personality psychology also involved learning how to hand code HTML and run web surveys. When I proposed an independent study project exploring
gamers, Doug unknowingly launched my research career by helping me identify the psychological questions waiting to be answered. His ideas of how psychology and technology intersect have always been and remain an inspiration. During my graduate program at Stanford University, Jeremy Bailenson's contagious intensity and drive led to the four most productive years of my academic career as we used virtual reality to understand what it means to have a digital avatar. I couldn't have asked for a more supportive and astute graduate adviser who could discuss theory, methods, and technical tools with the same savviness. It was also during my graduate program when Nic Ducheneaut brought me onboard as an intern at the Palo Alto Research Center as he pioneered new ways of collecting and analyzing large-scale data in online games. As a mentor and
colleague over the past eight years, we've shared some amazing adventures together in game data. This book would not be possible without them.

Over the past decade, more than fifty-five thousand online gamers have participated in my surveys. I cannot thank them enough for their time, their willingness to share their stories, and their insightful comments.

At LaunchBooks, my agent, David Fugate, helped me understand the publishing world and figure out what kind of book I wanted to write. And last but not least, Joe Calamia at Yale University Press tirelessly read and reread drafts and revisions, always providing insightful suggestions on how to improve the flow, the structure, and the prose. I'd like to thank him for all his help throughout the proposal and writing process, and for making this a better book.



I needed to create a mirror. I was a graduate student at Stanford University, and several undergraduates with graphics and programming backgrounds were helping me build a virtual room for a research study. Our initial idea would have required complicated trigonometric calculations based on the viewer's head position and what part of the room was visible behind him or her. The director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, Jeremy Bailenson, helped us cross this technical hurdle. Instead of using a reflective mirror, he suggested making a hole in the virtual room's wall. Through this hole, the viewer would see an adjoining, flipped replica of the room. And a digital doppelgänger in that flipped room would mimic the viewer's every movement. Virtual cloning triumphed over trigonometry, but we still had a problem: it was all too perfect. Instead of acting like a mirror, it looked like a stranger staring at you and mocking your movements from another room. With only a few days left before the study began, I had an idea. I added a translucent sheet of water stains in front of our mirror. With some grime, our mirror came together. Even in a virtual world, imperfection proved more believable.

In the lab experiment itself, we gave participants either an attractive
or an unattractive avatar. They would see their new virtual selves in the virtual mirror and then interact with a virtual stranger. Within sixty seconds of being given a new digital body, participants in attractive avatars became friendlier and shared more personal information with the stranger than participants in unattractive avatars. Changing avatar height had a similar effect: people given taller avatars became more confident than people given shorter ones. Crucially, these behavioral changes followed users even when they had left the virtual world. Those recently given attractive avatars selected more attractive partners in a separate offline task. As we create and endlessly customize our avatars, they in turn influence how we think and how we behave. Virtual worlds change and control us in unexpected ways.

Bailenson and I coined a term for this power of avatars: the Proteus Effect. In the
Homer describes the sea god Proteus as being able to change his physical form at will:

First he turned into a great bearded lion,
and then to a serpent, then to a leopard, then to a great boar,
and he turned into fluid water, to a tree with towering branches.

Proteus encapsulates one of the promises of virtual worlds: the ability to reinvent ourselves, to be one and many at the same time. But in my research, I have cataloged the inadvertent ways in which virtual worlds control how we think and behave. And more often than not, these behavioral changes have unlikely sources—things that we wouldn't have expected to have power over us, such as our avatars' height or whether we can ask a preprogrammed city guard for directions when we're lost.

Every day, millions of people log into massively multiplayer online role-playing games (often referred to as MMORPGs or just MMOs),
World of Warcraft
and interact with each other via fantasy characters of their own creation. These online games allow people from all over the world to embark on adventures together, exploring dark dungeons and finding magical treasures. At its peak,
World of Warcraft
had twelve million subscribers. In 2012, an estimated twenty million users had active monthly subscriptions to online games, the most common way of playing online games in North America and Europe. In Asia, online games use a free-to-play model instead of requiring monthly subscriptions and derive profit instead from selling premium items or services within the game. In China, at least two online games have recorded a peak concurrent usage of over two million gamers—
Fantasy Westward Journey
Zheng Tu Online.
And online games were expected to generate $6.1 billion in China alone in 2012. Virtual worlds designed specifically for kids have also done well in recent years. The free-to-play game
Club Penguin
, for example, had seven hundred thousand paying subscribers in 2007 when Disney purchased the company for $350 million.

At first glance, these fantasy worlds could not be more detached from reality—after all, gnomes and dragons belong in storybooks. And indeed, when online games burst into the public consciousness in the early to mid-2000s, the media portrayed them as a seductive escape. In a 2006 article in the
Washington Post,
“Lost in an Online Fantasy World,” Olga Kazan noted that online gamers “can be sorcerers or space pilots, their identities woven into a world so captivating, it is too incredible to ever leave. Unfortunately, some of them don't.” A piece published the same year in the
San Francisco Chronicle
went further: “The Internet once was seen as a golden information superhighway transporting the next generation to the Promised Land. Now it may feel more like a minefield—seductive on the surface, but seeded with subterranean hazards.” Even when academics
challenged the presumed dangers of online games, the counterargument was often still rooted in escapism. In his book
Synthetic Worlds,
economist Edward Castronova countered that escaping into virtual worlds is actually a positive and rational decision for some players: “And for those for whom Real Life: The Game is indeed joyless, the synthetic world evidently represents a game that has many of the same features but is more fun to play. Its use therefore represents a choice, a completely rationale one in fact.”

Many researchers have emphasized the hopeful promises of freedom and empowerment in virtual worlds and online games. In her 1995 book on textual virtual worlds, ethnographer and psychologist Sherry Turkle wrote that these new worlds “encourage us to think of ourselves as fluid, emergent, decentralized, multiplicitous, flexible, and ever in progress.” Though Turkle's current work is more pessimistic, recent books on gaming argue even more strongly for similar potentials. Game designer Jane McGonigal's 2011 book
Reality Is Broken
has the tagline, “Why games make us better and how they can change the world,” and argues that games can powerfully contribute to happiness and improve the quality of our lives. And anthropologist Bonnie Nardi wrote that online games allow “a release of creativity and a sense of empowerment in conditions of autonomy, sociality, and positive reward.”

I am not as optimistic. Instead of an escape from the drudgeries of the physical world, many online gamers describe their gameplay as an unpaid second job. And instead of freedom and empowerment in online games, I found quite the opposite: superstitious behaviors such as ritual dances pervade online games; a gamer's offline nationality can be a matter of virtual life and death; and false gender stereotypes are being made true when we play online games. Even when we believe we are free and empowered, our offline politics and
cognitive baggage prevent us from changing. And where we think we are fully in control, unique psychological levers in virtual worlds (such as our avatars) powerfully change how we think and behave. This is the Proteus Paradox. Without a more careful look how these spaces do and do not change us, the promises of virtual worlds and online games are being subverted.

Video gamers no longer form a fringe subculture; these games are rapidly converging with many aspects of our everyday lives. Not only are millions of people spending on average twenty hours per week in these online games, business corporations are increasingly exploring how the psychological principles from gaming can be harnessed for corporate work. The consulting company Gartner has predicted that by 2014, 70 percent of Global 2000 companies will have at least one application that incorporates gaming mechanisms. Games are also where people have started to form long-term relationships. Ten percent of online gamers have physically dated someone they first met in a virtual world. Games are becoming an integral part of our lives—they are where we play, where we work, and where we fall in love. But technology isn't a neutral tool that simply bends to our will. When we adopt new gadgets, those gadgets help shape how we think, behave, and interact with one another. As millions of people spend increasing amounts of time in online games and virtual worlds, we need to be vigilant about whether these new environments are fulfilling their promises of freedom and reinvention, and if they're not, we need to find a way to change them.

BOOK: The Proteus Paradox
2.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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