Humans Playing Online Games Organize Themselves into Fractals

Players may be acting in a future, space-based world, but they still organize themselves into the fractals that humans have always fallen into

Researchers used the game Pardus to look at human organization. Randal Lovelace

Massively multiplayer online games are increasingly becoming a tool for researchers to study online, and sometimes offline, behavior. From outbreaks to what avatars say about psychology, researchers can use these huge networks of players to try and understand more about humans. And now, a recent study looked at MMOs for information about how humans organize ourselves, and what they found was that “humans naturally form into a fractal-like hierarchy in which people belong to a variety of groups on different scales.”

The researchers in this study looked at the game Pardus, a game in which users enter a futuristic universe, in which they trade, fight, compete and interact. Previous studies have used Pardus, too, and argue that users in the game act similarly to how they might in real life. (The extent to which gaming and living can be compared is hotly debated, but that’s another story.) Over 400,000 people have played Pardus, and the researchers looked at those players for how they formed groups with one another.

Essentially, there were six types of groups that increase in size. First there are individuals, and they can form bonds with close friends, or other friends. Then there are alliances, communication, and, at the sixth level, everybody else. When the researchers mapped how each player connects and networks with these six groups, they found that “online players exhibit the same type of structured hierarchical layers as the societies studied by anthropologists, where each of these layers is three to four times the size of the lower layer.”

Take, for example, alliances. The largest alliances the researchers found were about 136 members, which they note is very close to Dunbar’s number—the theoretical number of people with whom any one person can maintain a stable social relationship in real life. So while players may be acting in a future, space-based world, they still organize themselves into the same fractals that humans have fallen into for thousands of years.

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