Friday, November 23, 2007

Scale-Free Video Games

When thinking about social networking in games, one often thinks of a popular game series known as “The Sims” by EA games. The game basically allows you, the player, to take control of the lives of your characters, while having to take care of their daily necessities. Characters that are played often generate many different "contacts" with non-player character Sims and/or other player characters.

A game published by ATLUS called “Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3” takes this simulation one step further. One of the most prominent ideas in Persona 3 is to have your main character create and maintain social networks with many of the other characters from within the game as a method to power up your character for your journey. That is, you, as the player, are deliberately creating the same situation as that in “The Sims”, but instead of having characters with many contacts as a consequence of playing the game, it is a goal.

Both of these games fall into the simulation video game category, though one is a “life simulator” and the other is a “social network simulator/role playing game.” The subtle differences between the two are not the point of this article, but rather that the end point of the two games are the same. In both cases, you end up with few characters with many contacts, and many characters with few contacts. By definition, that is known as a scale-free network.

Scale-free networks are more or less accurately descriptive of any sort of networking (social or otherwise). According to wikipedia, scale-free networks range from computer networks to protein-protein interaction networks in cells. The major characteristic of scale-free networks is a very simple rule: there are few nodes with many connections (called hubs), and many nodes with few connections, where a node is an individual in the population of the network. Scale-free networks are robust against random removal of nodes, but extremely vulnerable to targeted attacks against removal of hubs. Looking horizontally towards an application to social networking, we see that the entire removal of one individual from all social relationships-- isolation-- is unlikely. But specific relationships often wane. This application of scale-free networks has implications for Persona 3: the game's creators actually developed a complete in-game environment in which social simulations just happen to end up being scale-free. Is this simply a consequence of the game's design, as is in “The Sims?” Or was the distinct social simulation pattern deliberate?

Perhaps the most useful application of scale-free networks in gaming is not offline gaming, but rather online gaming. Many games these days have an online component, with the massive multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG) genre being on top of the food chain of online gaming. One of the most popular games is “World of Warcraft” by Blizzard. Again, it is easy to see scale-free networks in this game, as the most powerful guilds would tend to know many other guilds than smaller, lesser known guilds that number in the thousands. The pattern again strikes to be the same as many of the other games, but now with a social context as individuals are all human players. MMORPG games simply become a medium within which normal human social networks emerge.

In the end, what does this all mean? It simply means that scale-free networks are bound to happen as a natural consequence, even in video games. What we can learn from scale-free networks shows us that through an interdisciplinary perspective (like analyzing video games with a sociological concept) we can uncover interesting new insights. What is to say that we have stopped with just scale-free networks? Can we not dwell on human psychology from gaming? Can gaming innovations be eventually applied to other areas in sciences and arts? From what we've just gathered in scale-free networks, yes. Even if only because it is humans who create games.

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