The Gonzo Scientist

Slaying Monsters for Science

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Science  20 Jun 2008:
Vol. 320, Issue 5883, pp. 1592
DOI: 10.1126/science.320.5883.1592c

John Bohannon

A series of reports on connections between science, culture, and the arts from Science Contributing Correspondent John Bohannon, who, in true gonzo* style, will participate in the events he covers.

I blame myself for the death of Wayne Lutters. It happened last month during a conference I helped organize. The first day's session had just concluded and, at least so far, things were going smoothly. For the day's social event, we were heading out of the city on a field trip to see some ancient rock art, hiking across a semiarid rangeland known locally as the Barrens. The problem was the wildlife. It's a relatively safe area if you stick to the roads, but they disappear in places beneath the dust and weeds. The plan was to leave the city together, with experienced guides in the lead. But even though the schedule had been announced weeks in advance on the conference Web site and everyone had a map, dozens of people got lost or distracted between the conference venue and the meeting point. As we made our way south into the Barrens, we tried to clear away the more aggressive beasts, particularly the crocodiles along the riverbank. Even in the vanguard, things got hairy. At one point, a croc charged toward an undergraduate student on our fringe. I drew my bow and squeezed off three arrows, killing it before it could reach her. The stragglers were not so lucky. Lutters, a computer scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, tried to reach the rock-art site on his own. He drifted off the road somewhere near the mountains. A pack of hyenas found him and tore him apart. That's a horrible way to die.

Thus began the first scientific conference held in Azeroth, the online universe inhabited by millions of people playing World of Warcraft. Anyone who has been part of a conference's organizing committee knows that some glitches and mishaps are just unavoidable. And as usual, the problems that actually did occur were unforeseen. It was a success nonetheless. By the end of the third day, a real scientific exchange took place, I married one of the conference participants, and within an hour of the wedding, we were all dead.

Shock and Awe

The idea for this conference came together in a flash while on the phone with Bill Bainbridge, a sociologist and program director at the U.S. National Science Foundation. I was asking him about a Science article he wrote last summer about virtual worlds as natural laboratories for scientific research. The article mentioned a range of research areas, from economics and psychology to epidemiology, and I wanted to know more about specific projects. That was when Bainbridge—a 67-year-old with a mild Connecticut accent—mentioned that he has logged in “2100 hours of ethnographic research” in Azeroth. “I have 18 characters, two of them 70th-level,” he said. “I have two accounts,” he added casually, “so that I can run characters simultaneously.”

It was with equal parts shock and awe that I realized Bainbridge has spent more time in Azeroth than my entire family combined—and trust me, that's a lot. (Level 70 is the highest possible and typically requires 300 to 400 hours of play, just for one character.) To spend more time together, my family has been meeting regularly in Azeroth for a year now—me from Austria, my father from Indiana, and my sister from New York—talking via Skype while we slay monsters. Our characters are night elves, the sworn enemies of the blood elves. Bainbridge chuckled and said, “I took part in a massive raid on night elf territory. I managed to sneak my 70th-level blood elf priest, Catullus, into the Temple of the Moon. I'll send you the screenshot.” There was a pause as I took this in. Pulling off that feat is the equivalent of a Soviet spy snapping a picture of himself grinning in the U.S. president's Oval Office at the height of the Cold War.

“Why don't we host a scientific conference in Azeroth?” I said. “What better place for a meeting about research in online game worlds than in the game itself?” He agreed. To get the ball rolling, we e-mailed a dozen scientists with active research projects involving Azeroth and other online worlds; this became our ad hoc conference committee. It took less than 2 months to organize from start to finish.

There are pros and cons to hosting a conference in a place like Azeroth. On the plus side, people can take part from all over the world without leaving home. It reduces the environmental footprint and—aside from the $15 monthly fee for maintaining a World of Warcraft account—it's free. But in the e-mails flying between Bainbridge and the other scientists, several practical worries did emerge.

First of all, participants might not be able to find the conference venues on Azeroth's vast and dangerous continents. The plan was to have panel discussions in different locations over the course of the 3-day meeting. We couldn't count on everyone being veteran players—in fact, we hoped to include as many newcomers as possible. But there are few easily accessible places where a 1st-level character can cross the road without becoming a monster snack. The choice among safe locations is further limited by the fact that most are jealously guarded by one of the two major factions — Alliance and Horde — and venturing into the wrong territory spells certain death for newbies.

The compromise solution was to make it a Horde-only conference. Anyone who didn't already have a Horde character would have to create a new one and level up before the conference. That allowed Bainbridge to settle on three venues in Horde and neutral territory with stunning vistas and nearby features of scientific relevance for expeditions.

Then there was the question of funding for conference bags. Azeroth's economy is based on (virtual) gold, and although it doesn't cost (real) money—notorious Chinese gold farmers notwithstanding—it does take time. Luckily, the organizers' 70th-level characters are the equivalent of multimillionaires in their world. To give a sense of the financial planning behind our conference, here is a representative e-mail excerpt from Bainbridge:

“Catullus himself could donate a few hundred gold pieces, for example to buy a souvenir for every participant at the conference. Pet cats can be bought from the Crazy Cat Lady between Northshire and Goldshire for 40 silver. He is a Horde character, but he can use smuggling methods to send gold to Alliance characters via his Alliance wife, Lunette. If we had 50 low-level participants, he could give each 10 gold, they could use for their own shopping (10 gold = 1,000 silver = 25 cats per person!).”

Ultimately, Catullus contributed 3000 gold for the conference, and others donated the equivalent of 1000 gold in material. This was scientific funding at its finest.

Griefer Paradise

Credit: thetruestofmikes / Flickr

My major concern was how people would communicate. I proposed to set up a Web site for audio-streaming the panel discussion and audience questions. Bainbridge wisely advised against it. If the goal is to immerse scientists in the game world, then we should take advantage of the game's native communication medium. People do use their own voices when adventuring in five-member parties, using Skype or other VoIP services. After all, there's just no quicker way to warn your mage that you're going to die unless he resheeps the Greater Lava Spider eating your leg. But for any social unit larger than a party, human speech is unworkable. (Virtual worlds are not yet sophisticated enough to encode the subtle volume control and visual cues that make crowded real-world conversations possible.) For communication within larger social units, the raid, guild, and any of Azeroth's town and city channels, everyone relies on chat: a scrolling column of typed words.

The danger of using chat for a conference is that many people—especially slow typists and those unacquainted with the medium—can be overwhelmed by the rapidly spooling dialogue. (If you can't touch-type 50 words per minute, you're practically mute.)

But the advantages are numerous. For one, even if people are late to show up to a session venue, they can still take part via guild chat. And compared to real-world crowd conversations, which are fast and mostly aural, chat is slower and exclusively visual. That makes it possible to follow—and participate in—multiple simultaneous conversations. As a bonus, the entire record of what everyone says at every moment of the conference—with the exception of privately whispered comments—can be recorded as a text file. So Bainbridge and the organizers crossed their fingers and created a guild called Science. Joining would be the equivalent of conference registration.

When the meeting was announced, we could only guess what might happen. Would we get 10 people, 100, or 1000? We had no backup plan if a sudden influx of characters in one place were to crash the server. (To help prevent that from happening, we gave Blizzard a heads-up about the conference.)

And just days before it started, I heard a rumor that virtual-world vandalists, known as griefers, were planning to disrupt the conference just for kicks. “Well, if that happens,” mused Bainbridge, “that would also be interesting!”

Leaving Meatspace

I was almost too distracted to enjoy the sight of dozens of people swimming across a murky bay to the conference venue. With only minutes to go before the start of the first session, the pets that came with the conference swag were making an awful racket. (Although the dialog is text-based, Azeroth has a rich soundscape.) From where I stood, surrounded by about 50 others atop one of the martian-red hills on the coast of Durotar, all sounds were drowned out by the whirring and clacking of someone's mechanical squirrel. The thing was going to make it impossible to record machinima of the conference. Luckily, I did manage, and you can see the result opposite.

When I say “I” of course I mean Gonzorina, my troll huntress. And the “people” gathering around me were a menagerie of humanoid creatures ranging from knee-high gnomes to gigantic taurens—half-bovine creatures that resemble minotaurs. I spotted Bainbridge's character, Catullus, and waved. The noise grew louder as a fight broke out between a mathematician and a linguist. I whispered to them to duel down on the beach. The guild chat was still brimming with desperate pleas from lost characters to summon them to the conference venue.

Just when I was sure this thing was spinning out of control, Maggiemae, a 68th-level undead mage created by University of California, Irvine, anthropologist Bonnie Nardi, announced, “ok everyone please ‘be quiet’ lol—we are going to start!!!” And just like that, about 100 people quieted down and actually listened. Or rather, they read.

Credit: James Brust

“Welcome everyone! This is Session One in which we discuss research on World of Warcraft. I am Bonnie Nardi, or Maggiemae, if you prefer. I'm a faculty member at the University of California, Irvine.” Her co-chair, Hilde Corneliussen, an information scientist at the University of Bergen, Norway—present as an 11th-level blood elf warlock named Kultura—introduced herself, and the session got under way. Nardi launched the first question for the panel: “Some researchers have claimed that WoW (and other MMOGs) can be used as a laboratory for studying human behavior. What do you think about this?”

What's remarkable about the hourlong discussion that ensued is not how exotic it was but how very familiar. Like all such sessions at scientific conferences, the panelists began by turning the question inside-out, peppering their answers with caveats. “I think it's true depending on the particular type of behavior you're interested in,” said Kartuni, the character of panelist Nicolas Ducheneaut, a computer scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in California. “In my own work for instance I'm interested in the dynamics of social networks, and guilds are a perfectly valid laboratory to observe these networks.” On the other hand, for economists, “WoW is interesting less because of its similarities with the physical world and more for its differences,” said Kartuni, because “it lets economists put some long-held assumptions to the test.”

Familiar-sounding and yet, when was the last time you've seen members of an audience interrupt a speaker almost immediately to share their thoughts? (Besides the British Parliament, I mean.) “Transfer to meatspace is problematic,” piped up Maria Droujkova, a mathematics education software designer at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. That sentiment was immediately echoed by T. L. Taylor, a games researcher at the IT University of Copenhagen, Denmark. “I think we have to be careful though to make sure we are dealing with the ludological aspects of the space and watching for when the comparisons make sense,” she inserted.

That's another pitfall typical of interdisciplinary conferences: jargon. “Ludological?” I whispered to Maggiemae. This was the protocol we were meant to follow: questions and comments whispered privately to the moderator. Maggiemae passed the question on to Taylor's character, Ybika. “By ludological I mean in particular a care for how the game qualities of the space shape interactions, behaviors etc.,” she announced again directly to the audience. “This potentially complicates one-to-one correlations.” Maggiemae reminded everyone, “If you have a comment or question on the panelist's answer, please whisper me.” This etiquette never quite took hold, but on balance, I'd say the interjections enriched rather than hindered the flow.

The Gonzorina and I

Credit: Joanna Robinson

What I found most interesting in the first day's sprawling exchange was the fundamental question of identity. How much of yourself is in your virtual character? It's clearly not all of you—I like to think of myself as gentle-natured, whereas Gonzorina's favorite pastime is killing forest bunnies to hear them squeal—but if you're the one making the character walk and talk, then there must be quite a lot of you in there. Worlds like Azeroth can be used to “validly test theories of the stability of personality,” said Bainbridge through his Tauren character Computabull. (He controlled no fewer than seven characters during the conference.) To what extent are people's behaviors protean or determined by genes and experience? Bainbridge has been testing this experimentally by analyzing the characters created by 4000 Warcraft players. The issue has “divided psychology from sociology for decades,” said Computabull during the session.

The conference itself provided a small experiment along these lines. There was disagreement among the organizers about whether to require participants to reveal their real-world identity or allow them to be fully represented by their characters. There are many reasons why players of WoW are reluctant to reveal themselves. For one, it breaks the “magic circle” that divides the social rules and expectations of real and make-believe worlds. Role-playing, after all, is a large part of the fun. But is a scientific conference an appropriate place for anonymity? It seems anathema to the transparency and trust that makes science possible.

In the end, Bainbridge encouraged people to record their identity as they liked on the conference Web site's voluntary participants page. Most of the 128 people who did so provided their real-world names and affiliations. And in a spontaneous experiment before the panel discussion began, a character named Clarion challenged people to self-identify. She started the ball rolling by announcing: “I'm Pauline Brutlag and I'm hailing from Stanford University School of Medicine - sitting with Parvati Dev - both from the SUMMIT group.” I feared that no one would respond, but it sparked an explosion of self-identification. Over the next 6 minutes, 69 of the 100 or so online guild members self-reported their identity. (Only three claimed “I am Spartacus.”)

One griefer did show up. During the session, a character named Zomgscience ran around in the audience making comments out loud. Most were harmless and silly, such as “I like turtles.” But by the middle of the session, some satirical remarks made it clear that he or she was actually listening to the panel discussion. I whispered to Zomgscience, asking how that was possible without being a member of the Science guild. “I can read just fine on,” he/she responded. I had forgotten that the conference was being live-streamed on someone's Web site for all the world to see. “I already made my thoughts on this gathering known, people ignored me,” Zomgscience whispered, presumably a reference to one of the many online forum discussions about the conference. “I'll settle for being a *minor* nuisance to get my point across, I'm not here to be a total jerk.”

And indeed, some of Zomgscience's later comments proved insightful and became part of the discussion. There was plenty of room under this big virtual tent. (We'll never know the real-world identity of Zomgscience, but he/she is most likely an academic researcher, judging by the comments.)

Session 1 ended with a full minute of cheering and clapping from the audience. Then Bainbridge said, “Five minute bio break, then we can begin the expedition.” And that was where similarities between this conference and real-world scientific gatherings suddenly ended.

Credit: James Brust

Who are you, colleague?

Scientific conferences serve many purposes. On the one hand, talks and posters provide updates on cutting-edge research that hasn't appeared yet in the journals. But most scientists consider conferences to be at least as valuable for the socializing as for the learning. After all, science is by its nature a highly social activity, requiring frequent interaction to build and maintain research collaborations. Telephone and e-mail just don't cut it; at least once a year, scientists want to meet eye to eye. So what happens when those eyes are blood-red and set in a blue face with yellow tusks? Will future research collaborations be built on moments like these?

Azeroth “certainly isn't your typical conference venue,” says Dmitri Williams, a psychologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “When you don't have the architecture of a regular conference room, it changes things.” The traditional environment imposes traditional rules of social hierarchy, he says, but “all that suddenly gets tossed on its head when you're in a bubbling dungeon” — which was the venue for the session 2 panel led by Williams.

The result is that in Azeroth, everyone is on equal footing. But the flexibility of identity has some strange consequences. “Are people more or less prone to deception and lying in virtual worlds than they are in the real world?” asked Williams during the session. On a certain level, replied Nick Yee, a games and social science researcher at PARC, people routinely deceive others online. “Jeff Hancock from Cornell did a really interesting study of deception in online dating ads. They had age, height, and weight of the real people and the corresponding ads they had put up online. They found that almost everyone lied,” said Yee. “But the opposite is also true, people are more willing to share secrets online because of the lack of social consequences. So about 35% of 3200 respondents said they had shared a secret with an online friend that they had never told anyone in the real world.”

And like the rest of the conference, the interactions were both intimate and impersonal. Intimate because participants freely shared their opinions on any matter, and often bluntly. But at the same time, roughly half of them never provided their real-world identities, even many who were enthusiastic and clearly well-informed contributors to the discussion. Self-identification is clearly an issue that researchers will need to confront if virtual conferences like these become common.

The consensus was that they surely will become more common. “There is great interest in using virtual worlds for researchers to work together in so-called collaboratories,” said Bainbridge. “This has been a step in that direction.” Bainbridge says he and the organizers plan to use the transcript of the conference as the basis of an academic report. And the Science guild has taken on a life of its own, with more than 300 members and growing. It will be used as a platform to organize future meetings in Azeroth. (There is no formal connection between the guild and the journal.)

All told, between 200 and 300 people took part in the conference. (The exact number is difficult to gauge because many of the 250 people who joined the Science guild by the final day of the conference attended different sessions, and untold numbers took part by looking over their colleagues' shoulders or via live-streamed video.) Most were academics in computer science, psychology, sociology, and economics. About 15% were “randoms,” says Williams—curious gamers who included among their ranks at least two youngsters, aged 10 and 14, who were bored by the conference's panel sessions but relished the expeditions. In fact, if anyone had an advantage at this conference it was them. No generation before this one has spent more developmental years slaying monsters in virtual worlds.

Credit: James Brust

For Science!

Which brings me back to Lutters. I blame myself for his death because my personal mission was to look after newbies brave enough to take part in this conference. (A senior editor at Science gave up after her 1st-level character was slaughtered on the way to session 2.) Kvinesdal, a blood elf warlock, was Lutters's first-ever character in the World of Warcraft. The name comes from the “ancestral family farm in southern Norway,” he later told me. “I had a hilarious back and forth with one of the Norwegian conference participants who noted that the region is now the arch-conservative religious stronghold in Norway, and he appreciated the irony of my demon-conjurer class.”

I was relieved to learn that Lutters enjoyed the conference in spite of his many deaths. He was in the front row at the evening entertainment on day 2, a banshee concert in an underground throne room. And when Gonzorina formally welcomed the conference participants during her wedding on day 3, Kvinesdal was the first to cheer. “My usual one-liner about the event was that I was picked off by packs of wild hyenas en route to the conference reception dinner,” he wrote me in an e-mail afterward. “Not altogether different than your average academic conference in Vegas.”

Then again, not even a conference in Vegas ends the way ours did. With fireworks bursting and confetti still drifting all around the dancing mob of wedding guests, Catullus announced the final event: a massive attack on Sentinel Hill, an Alliance stronghold. As we surged over the hills around the unsuspecting fort, everyone yelled, “For Science!” Bainbridge had enlisted the help of Alea Iacta Est, the largest guild in Azeroth. At first it seemed we were unbeatable. The 70th-level characters among us cut down the Sentinel Hill guards where they stood. We boiled up the spiral staircase to the platform atop the tower. It was so crowded that I could hardly see the parapets. Several people tumbled off during our celebratory dance.

But it wasn't long before Alliance players learned about the Science guild raid on Sentinel Hill. Word spread that “the scientists are running amok!” Powerful Alliance characters arrived, and the tide of battle turned against us. Within half an hour, every last one of us lay dead on the grass. Victory is short-lived in the harsh world of science.

In memoriam

Gary Gygax

1938 - 2008


One of Azeroth's two warring factions. The Alliance races are Humans, Night Elves, Dwarfs, Gnomes, and Draenei. Superficially at least, they match the stereotype of “the good guys.”
Blizzard Entertainment
The California-based company behind World of Warcraft.
Bio break
Briefly serving the biological needs of the real-world person at the computer.
The chat-based communication in World of Warcraft is divided into various channels that operate like walkie-talkies.
Death is not a permanent state in World of Warcraft but rather a nuisance. Once dead, a character's ghost must make a (sometimes lengthy) journey back to its corpse to be resurrected.
A consensual battle between two players in World of Warcraft. It's fun.
The most stable social unit in World of Warcraft. Guilds are organizations made up of characters who share common interests. They are created and maintained by players themselves.
One of Azeroth's two warring factions. The Horde races are Orcs, Tauren, Undead, Trolls, and Blood Elves. Superficially at least, they match the stereotype of “the bad guys.”
Characters begin as fragile, unskilled 1st-levels in World of Warcraft. Their level increases as they earn experience points by completing quests and killing monsters. Level 70 is the highest attainable in the current version of the game.
Abbreviation for “laugh out loud.” Variants include ROFL (Rolling on the floor laughing) and many others too piquant to print here.
The real world.
Massively multiuser online games, a general term that includes games such as World of Warcraft, which are specifically MMORPGs (massively multiuser online role-playing games).
A somewhat disparaging term for inexperienced players, new to World of Warcraft.
A maximum of five characters can join in a party to quest together. Many quests are impossible without a full and well-balanced party.
A maximum of 40 characters can join a raid to quest together. Such groups are notoriously difficult to orchestrate but are necessary to complete Azeroth's most difficult quests.
Azeroth is replicated as dozens of separate “realms” on scores of servers in the United States, Europe, and Asia.
Ritual of Summoning
One of the most useful spells in the game, allowing a party to teleport a lost character to its location over any distance.
Bainbridge says he chose this location in the creepy sewers of Undercity “as a metaphor about the relationship between the virtual world and the real world. The pus could not in fact infect us, and it had no smell. So we could regard it just as a pretty green light, if we wished.”
A term for the use of the mage spell Polymorph, which temporarily transforms a dangerous monster into a harmless, adorable sheep.
A private message can be whispered to any other currently online player of the same faction, like sending a text message to a mobile phone.
World of Warcraft

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