Networking in virtual worlds

Computer games have been found - both anecdotally and academically - to promote sociability

Gaming and me

My favourite games are those that don't take themselves too seriously. I like social games, puzzle games - even first person shooters; I like to dip in and out and know that I'm going to enjoy myself when I'm doing it. Good examples: Halo, Parappa the Rapper, Super Mario 64, Blast Corps - a huge variety from yesterday and today.

What I want for Christmas...

I've been working in the US for the past month where the interactive music sim Rock Band has been released but it's not going to be released in Europe in time for Christmas. Instead of one game I'd love to have a compilation of really good independent games, created outside the traditional publisher/console manufacturer cycle. I'd like to see what ideas are out there, and what mechanics are going to be coming to the industry.

Aleks Krotoski

The popular impression of computer gamers is that they are a lonesome bunch, more comfortable with a controller than a conversation. However, while that may have been the case when gaming was predominantly a single-player sport, there has been an impressive shift in the culture of interactive entertainment.

Responding to the needs of an audience that is gradually becoming more diverse, the games industry is increasingly producing products that not only offer but insist on collaboration, interaction, negotiation and teamwork. The multiplayer activities around the same box or via the internet connections of home consoles like the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii may suffice, but the most prominent genre in this movement is that of the computer-based massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs).

MMOGs, like the enormously popular World of Warcraft, are self-contained game universes in which millions of people interact to complete predetermined goals designed by game developers. They are participatory media, the evolution of choose-your-own-adventure books, in which no one player is the hero, and everyone plays a role in determining how a story unfolds.

Never-ending gameplay

The MMOG is an online phenomenon. Like the internet itself, it lives on a computer server and players log on to access their subscription accounts. Participants are represented by computer-generated characters in "avatar" form, on graphically-reconstructed worlds teeming with virtual life. The service is never offline; after players log off, it continues without them until they return for another session.

While the games provide platforms, it is what people do in these virtual worlds that makes them social spaces. The designs challenge players to work together to overcome obstacles and to achieve goals - which can take weeks of work. Socially, through the basic mechanics of the virtual worlds, players must organise themselves in physically distributed, task-based small groups and, as collaborative media, they enhance problem-solving skills, lateral thinking and imagination.

With so much time spent together, it's not surprising that these experiences leak into the real world. According to research by Nick Yee at Stanford University, online groups can become as emotionally important as their offline counterparts. By creating a virtual lifetime of mutual experiences, the environments provide the scaffolding for the development of real-life friendships, romantic relationships and, increasingly, job opportunities.

How in the real world can slaying virtual dragons translate into employment? Well, with over 12 million players from across the demographic spectrum in the most popular games, massively multiplayer games are a great space for networking. Some pundits even describe them as "the new golf". But what makes them attractive for recruitment is that the group activities in goal-oriented virtual worlds demonstrate teamwork and organisational skills in practical situations: proof beyond what's written on a CV.

In addition to the occupational prospects that arise from battling orcs, there is an abundance of research to suggest that these games are also important platforms for social development. The outsider may think that might always makes right in game environments, but online games are subject to subtle social rules, which determine the most appropriate actions to take in a situation.

Beyond netiquette

This goes beyond basic netiquette: the pervasiveness of the spaces and the group nature of the worlds reinforce the effects of consequence and the development of interpersonal trust. Professor James Paul Gee and his team at the University of Wisconsin have spent several years assessing how players come to understand the norms of these communities. Their research indicates that the real-time, collaborative nature of the environments encourage players to share knowledge and to create social understandings, which support the needs of the collective. Arguably, this is great practice for learning how to read signals in the real world.

More recently, a report from Brunel University argued that online games offer safe environments for self-experimentation because they present opportunities that players may not be able to experience offline in safe social environments with real-time feedback. People are able to try out desired aspects of themselves in the space of the game, testing the waters before taking them offline. Players recognise the benefits: one teacher in Yee's research explained that she developed greater confidence in organising her classroom after playing the role of the leader in an online game.

The solitary computer game pursuits of two decades ago have been replaced by interactive environments so socially rich that the games may become secondary to collaboration, networking and self-discovery. Like most modern online applications - from blogs to social networking sites - massively multiplayer games are about bringing people together rather than keeping them apart.

They may be lands of make-believe, but they are playgrounds for social development as well.

Aleks Krotoski is an academic, consultant and Guardian columnist