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Online Psychotherapy May Be More Effective

Psychotherapy Via Internet as Good as If Not Better Than Face-To-Face Consultations: I think this is fascinating, and look forward to seeing more research into this going forward. (I’d like to see the experiment replicated as well as a more thorough tear down of the paper, but I appreciate the research nonetheless.)

“In the medium term, online psychotherapy even yields better results. Our study is evidence that psychotherapeutic services on the internet are an effective supplement to therapeutic care.”

I’m both pleased and unsurprised by the findings, when you take into consideration some prior research that’s been done (thinking about some of the comments in the IRC Francais paper published back in 2002: I think it allowed us to get to know each other better. […] You learn about [the others] as people. We would talk about relationships and all kinds of things that you wouldn’t talk about in class.). It helps validate my feeling that online interaction and community serve very real, very valid roles, in ways that can be just as effective (or more) as in-person interaction. That’s not to say there aren’t issues that also need to be taken into account, but there IS value there.

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Toxic Communities: Behavior vs People

Toxic Behavior in League of Legends: A nice summary of some of the research coming out of Riot Games about toxic behavior in gaming communities, over at Nelson’s Weblog. You should really go read it (and watch the talk it’s based on), but the quick takeaway is: most toxic behavior comes from people who are usually upstanding community members but end up having a “bad day.” As Andy Baio points out, the solution for toxicity in your community isn’t (always) banning, but rather having moderators and community managers available to intervene and check in on users when toxic behavior first starts manifesting. (This mirrors my own observations doing community management work — the people acting out are rarely bad people, and the more you can treat them like humans having a bad day, the more you can smooth out toxic behavior before it becomes overwhelming.)

Hypersigils, Identity, and the Internet

Back in 2010, I ended up having a really rewarding Twitter conversation with some very smart people, talking about hypersigils and how they apply to the internet. I’ve been thinking more about the topic lately, and wanted to expand on what was said before.

Let’s start with the term hypersigil. The term was coined by Grant Morrison, but the concept has been around for a lot longer than that. The term has a certain magickal [sic] connotation because of its origins, and I know that some folks get squicked out about that. If it makes you feel any better, just think of it as a psychological focus used to affect personal change, in the form of creating a narrative. If that’s still not enough, come up with a better term that does an even better job of wrapping a complex concept into a compact term, that does an even better job of packing loads of exformation into one word, and then popularize that instead. I’d love to hear it.
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Intel's Social Media Guidelines

In an excellent example of corporate social-transparency, Intel just posted their social media guidelines, which they expect their employees to follow when engaging the public. I think this is fantastic, and a great example of a major company “walking the walk” when it comes to social media and community interaction. For anyone engaging in online communities and social media interaction, they’re an excellent guide to go by.

What MUDs Still Have to Offer to the Virtual World Discussion

There has been a lot of discussion within academic circles regarding the use of virtual worlds for the purpose of researching various forms of human and communal interaction and formation. Due to the exorbitant current cost of entry in creating an MMORPG (and the fact that they already have a population for the purposes of sampling), it seems like a great deal of the research is occurring within already established games. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se, though there will come a time when the greater degree of control over variables that comes with creating your own environments will likely become necessary. (As a case in point, while they can select which games they choose to sample, researchers tend not to have control over how the game is marketed, nor which demographics it chooses to target.)

There also seems to be a fair bit of focus on contemporary games, like Second Life, and World of Warcraft. While this certainly has merit, especially in that these games reach a certain critical mass, allowing for a greater demographic sampling for research: you are more likely to get not just core gamers, but also casuals with other interests that play as a fad (because “everyone” plays). This can only help the overall direction of research into social dynamics and interaction, and examining the social organism as a whole. However, what I’ve found is very little attention to a return to prior research, prior virtual worlds and experiments.

I think this is incredibly unfortunate. I think there is still a lot of play left in earlier models, such as MUDs (Multi-User Domains/Dungeons, the text-based precursor to the modern MMORPG). Many MUDs at this point have been established for well over a decade, which I think would offer a wealth of opportunities for seeing how a community matures and shifts as it ages. Let’s take AvatarMUD for example, since I have nearly a decade of experience with it. Over the past decade, I’ve seen the population rise to a peak population count of 190 individual players on at a given time, with a median of roughly 120 across the day, to a slow decline as players moved on, where the median is closer to 60, with a daily peak player count of around 90. Even in this, it has survived better than many MUDs.

As the player community has shrunk, so has the sense of community, which could be partially attributed to several design implementations that allowed for greater fragmentation of the player base (in addition to outside factors, such as a shift away from MUDs in general, and the increased availability of broadband allowing for more visually robust games to be played). What is particularly notable is that as the nature of the game evolved, we started adjusting and adapting more and more for “min-max” players, and hardcore players. This came at the cost of the more casual, social player. While I don’t think it is a perfect ratio, I strongly suspect there is at least a passing corollary between the reduction in population, with the prior percentage of casual and social players. What has remained are largely committed players, who have invested hundreds or even thousands of hours into their characters, and generally have considerably more than one alt. They’ve “mastered” the play mechanics of the game, and generally continue to play because of their investment in the game, and the friends they’ve made within the game, rather than continuing to find new challenges.

Due to making these adjustments in order to “keep ahead” of the “hardcore” players, the barrier of entry for new and more socially-oriented players becomes untenable unless they already have friends within the game. This is not unreasonable, since MUDs are largely populated through word of mouth: they are often labors of love, and not even allowed to charge or generate revenue, which means they tend not to have the budget to advertise. It does, however, mean that the truly new player is largely left to fend for themselves, and can become extremely frustrated until they start establishing a rapport and support group among other players. If they aren’t willing or able to devote the time and energy towards that end, that often marks the end of their time on the MUD.

This isn’t meant to be a doom or gloom forecast of things to come with AvatarMUD, and the staff remains receptive to a number of ideas on how to aid the casual player in becoming established, without sacrificing the game mechanics and design path they’re interested in pursuing. It remains to be seen how effective these ideas will prove to be, but that returns me to the point of this essay: MUDs present an opportunity to observe communities further along in the cycle, and their continued use as a sandbox for virtual worlds should not be underestimated.

Virtual Home

This may perhaps be a post better suited for my other blog, but for some reason, I felt it better suited to talk in this one about the notion of virtual spaces as a home, which is a topic recently touched upon over at Terra Nova in Bonnie Ruberg’s recent post: Grounded in Virtual Spaces. Her post broaches the topic that in many ways, blogs serve as a surrogate home on the internet.

But what exactly is “home”? Several Native American tribes believe that home is where you are born (in a geographical sense — I somehow doubt they were referring to the hospital room specifically), and that there is a spiritual connection tied to that area from then onward. This doesn’t mean you have to live there your whole life, but it will still have an effect on you in often subtle ways. Personally, I’m a big fan of this idea, and feel it works well to define a virtual home as well. Blogs (whether it’s a myspace page, friendster, facebook, blogger, or a stand alone site like this one) are often our first real forays into being a creator or participant in the virtual arena. It provides an anchor point where they are free to express themselves however they want (to let their guards down, figuratively speaking). People may move on or away from these blogs or pages, but their time spent with their own space to create and express themselves will continue to have an effect on them throughout their other endeavors.

Forums, however, serve a complementary but separate role, more similar to third spaces (Bowling alleys, pubs, places people gather that are neither home nor work), where it is a peer gathering of people collaborating to form a dialogue. It does not qualify as a home, per se, in that no matter how freeform the structure of the forum is, it is still ultimately governed by someone else. We may even end up spending more time in that third space than we do in our homes (even more true on the internet, where “home” serves as a place to toss links and thoughts before heading back out into browsing, with only the occasional extended period spent cleaning up or redesigning the site), but that does not alter the distinction between the two spaces.

I’m not really going anywhere with this in revelatory terms, but I did want to share. I may expand it later.

Virtual Economies within the Real World

As much as we might hate to admit it, a major element of social interaction is based around commerce; social hierarchy and structure has formed around it since the days of hunter/gatherer societies, and does not show any sign of changing any time soon. Whether capital based or commodity based, commerce is simply a part of the human social organism. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that commerce has migrated into the online world as well. We are already familiar with using real world finances to purchase real world items via the internet (such as eBay and Amazon, among many others); what has become a hot topic for designers and scholars alike is the purchase of virtual goods with real or even virtual money through virtual worlds.

Virtual worlds is a term that has grown out of a need to describe the communal aspect of massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) in a manner that delineates it from the ludological elements of the game. “Virtual World” and MMOG are used relatively interchangeably at this time, though they will continue to diverge as more research and study is performed: a MMOG is by nature a virtual world, but a virtual world needn’t have any ludological element to succeed.

As virtual worlds have grown in complexity and popularity over the past several years, they have begun to take on more and more elements from daily life, including that of commerce. Most virtual worlds have methods for sale and trade of items and virtual currency between players, most often based around the auction house method of sale: you place an item up for bid with a minimum asking price; players bid on the item until the minimum asking price (or more) is offered, at which point the item is sold. Alternatively, player to player private transactions can also be performed. These capabilities have enabled a new type of commerce: trade of real world currency for in game currency or goods. This originated via eBay, with early MMOGs such as Ultima Online and Everquest. These prototypical sales tended to be either in-game currency, or a high level character, selling for anywhere between $100 and $700. As time went on, the trend gained popularity, until it reached a point that people were collecting in-game cash for real world sale as a profession, primarily in parts of Southeast Asia where the exchange value would be maximized. These individuals have become known as “gold farmers,” and are considered a nuisance to players as well as the designers. (According to most End User License Agreements, the sale of in game assets for real money is not allowed, and justification for denial of services.)
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Krelian

As some (most) of you know, I’ve been on a MUD called AVATAR for seven years now. One of the things that really kept me playing it for so long was the sense of community that exists there. It’s like an extended family in many ways, and was made moreso by getting to know some of the players and other immortals in real life. (For instance, the owner of the MUD, Snikt, is both a friend and a business partner, and we would never have met without the MUD.)

One of our regular players died last night. Last week he had gone in for a routine tonsillectomy, and during the operation they knicked an artery. He was sent home afterwards, but ended up back in the hospital the following night, and slipped into a coma not long after. It continued to get worse, with a period during which he was brain dead for six minutes, causing irreversible brain damage even if he ever awoke from the coma. His parents signed a Do Not Resuscitate order yesterday, and he passed away at 1am last night. He was 19.
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Identity

I’ve been thinking about the concept of identity a lot lately (with my essay due in two weeks, this isn’t too surprising). I’ve noticed that I’ve been pretty strung out the past few days, frustrated by pretty much everything. (It’s been a viscious cycle: I have to psyche myself up to progress with the convention and make contacts out here… I manage to do it and finally feel comfortable and happy with the process, email in what I’ve done… after reading the responses, I’m back to being frustrated as hell.)

I’ve been spending time on IRC (I leave it open in another window while I write and occasionally glance at it to see if anything interesting is being talked about), and have found myself getting more and more pissed off by it. I’ve kept coming back to IRC intermittently ever since I originally started being online, and invariably I end up getting frustrated and leave. Looks like this will be another one of these occasions. I just can’t seem to help but get irritated when I frequent a channel for more than a week: the mishmash of young teens (and the angst and stupidity that goes with it), college-age elitists, and a thin layer of talented, intelligent, caring people that are generally silent for about 95% of their time online… it’s just frustrating.
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