Online Games Offer Real-World Insight into Virtual Collaboration

By Phyllis Jeffrey - What can slaying dragons and rescuing princesses in a fantasy online game teach us about virtual collaboration in the workplace and beyond? More than you might realize, says a new paper published by Assistant Professor of Communication Cuihua (Cindy) Shen and Communication doctoral student Grace Benefield. Shen, Benefield, and their co-author Alex Leavitt delve into the world of an online multiplayer game to provide lessons for optimizing collaboration in virtual teams (VTs) in the real world.

The paper, entitled "Virtual Team Networks: How Group Social Capital Affects Team Success in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game", was presented this March in San Francisco at the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing. It uses server log data from over 10,000 players of a game named Dragon Nest to understand how the structure of social connections both within a game-playing guild (a semi-permanent VT) and across guilds affects guild success. As players, in the guise of their character avatars, struggle “to awaken a poisoned goddess by defeating dungeons and dragons and discovering power stones,” they cooperate with guild-members, and play and trade with players outside their guild.

Far from being limited to the gaming sphere, the authors point out that advances in communications technology such as email, instant messaging, and teleconferencing have rendered virtual collaboration ubiquitous in many fields. But while VTs let members communicate and coordinate across time and space, their nebulousness can pose problems if members experience a lack of solidarity and focus. So what determines how well you work with people you may never meet face-to-face?

Tight-knit groups or cross-network connections?

The paper suggests that balance between group closure—the extent to which two group-members who are friends share other social connections within the group—and members’ ties to players outside the group is optimal for success. In other words, feeling connected to those you work with virtually promotes success by building trust and solidarity—but only when your team is also enlivened by the fresh ideas of outsiders. Too little interconnection among VT members and performance declines; too much, and groups lose out on the benefits of new knowledge and skills.

But not all connections, the authors find, are created equal. While being friends with your online group-members is helpful, players benefit from relationships that are based on the shared completion of tasks, and game-related exchanges. When it comes to connections across VTs, only task- and exchange-based connections contribute to group success.

As the development of communications technology proceeds apace and more and more of our interactions—from playing online games to designing open software to professional collaboration—is conducted via online cooperation, there will be need for continuing research into just what determines how well we work with each other in virtual space.

Read the paper in CSCW '16: Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing.