How Online Field Studies May Save Thousands of Bagels

Could World of Warcraft turn into World of Research?
Could World of Warcraft turn into World of Research?

T. Franklin Waddell, a doctoral candidate in mass communications at Penn State, conducted a huge study — we’re talking a study with thousands of participants — and never needed to schedule lab space or arrange the purchase and delivery of 2,300 bagels and a few hundred gallons of orange juice and water.

How did he do it? 

Waddell and his study co-author, James Ivory, an associate professor of communication, Virginia Tech, conducted the experiment online in a virtual space called World of Warcraft. While Waddell was studying how gender and appearance stereotypes follow women from the real world into these online worlds, he also indicates that his study had one unexpected  ramification. As research becomes increasingly expensive in terms of both money and space for universities, these online field experiments may be able to move research into virtual spaces where scientists can have access to a global pool of millions of potential participants.

“It was a good-news, bad-news thing,” Waddell said. “While it was depressing to find out that problems like gender stereotypes can affect women just as they do in real life, the good news is that people’s online interactions are similar to their offline ones, and that could have much larger implications for scientists.”

While discussing the study with the researcher, I began to think there may be one more negative that was being overlooked. Waddell said that during the study he had  online discussions with 2,300 World of Warcraft (WoW) players to collect the data. I mean, the guy is going to get carpal tunnel syndrome! But, according to Waddell, trying to find 2,300 participants, bring them physically to a central location on campus and arrange room for this massive experiment countered any repetitive wrist motion injury he gained during his online field study.

Just for the logistical reasons alone, Waddell said that he expects virtual spaces to serve as a massive online laboratory for more researchers and more experiments. His study adds to prior research that suggests there would be little difference in online and offline behaviors for many fields, including not just communications and information technology, but even psychology and sociology.

In Waddell’s study, the researchers examined how the attractiveness of a player’s avatar affected the reaction of fellow players in World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game developed by Blizzard Entertainment. In addition to other findings, it turns out that the better looking the female avatar was, the more helpful other players were, while attractiveness mattered very little in the case of the male WoW players.

“The results basically mimicked what we would expect to happen in the real world,” said Waddell.

He adds that there is a lot more work to be done in examining how offline and online stereotypes clash or merge. One idea is to  find out how experience affects behaviors. A long-term player may react differently to avatars than a novice, for example.

And, of course, WoW is only one online environment. There are many more.

The study appeared recently in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.

*Disclosure: No bagels were harmed in the writing of this blog post.  The mini Snickers bar? That’s a different story.



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