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Addressing social dilemmas and fostering cooperation through computer games

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Author: Chen, Mark
Gamers who play MMORPGs often form clans or guilds so they can benefit from pooled resources and skills. It is generally understood that all the members of a given guild will work together, whether the task is fighting a common foe (either other players or game controlled "mobs"), helping each other gather resources and craft items, or performing other in-game tasks more efficiently. Yet, some guilds recruit so aggressively and acquire so many new people that members no longer know each other, which in turn leads to a very diluted sense of community. This sense of isolation has such an impact that there may come a time when some guild members feel no obligation to the guild at all. These members often become free-loaders, reaping the benefits of the guild while neither contributing nor being an active participant in guild activities. This, of course, happens in real life on a grand scale and in mathematical game theory is called a "social dilemma." (A classic example is Hardin’s The Tragedy of the Commons.) People do not feel compelled to vote, carpool, or recycle even though they may know the benefits of doing so. Reasons for not participating include the fact that contributing has little impact on whether one benefits from the group. Another reason is that people don’t have a strong sense of identity within a cooperative community. In my on-going research, I am examining the role computer games can play in both fostering cooperation and collaboration skills for the benefit of the group and in instilling a sense of responsibility in people when they are confronted with a social dilemma. In a previous project, I, along with two colleagues, examined identity formation of gamers while playing in a simulated social dilemma. For this, we created a custom single-player module for Neverwinter Nights. We found that although players tried alternate strategies when playing the game, their game playing did not appear to affect their real-life choices. Game playing, however, did appear to promote deeper thinking about real-world situations when prompted. We concluded that it is possible we didn’t find any strong pattern between in-game and real-world identities and behavior because the game we created was not deep enough to realistically simulate the complexity of real-world social situations. We also believed that the results of the game would have been very different if the players had to interact with other real-world people. Keeping these in mind, this study examines a group of online gamers in which I participate that is attempting to create a sustainable cooperative guild with a strong sense of group identity in World of Warcraft. It is our hope that the guild will continue to thrive even if founding members leave the game and that members of the guild will benefit greatly from membership and come to understand their role in maximizing the efficiency and camaraderie of a cooperative community. Having done this, it becomes a question of whether this knowledge transfers to real life.
Contact: Mark Chen, College of Education, University of Washington,
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