SOE hands over 60TB of Server Logs to Researchers

From an Ars Technica article:

Thanks to a partnership with Sony, a team of academic researchers have obtained the largest set of data on social interactions they’ve ever gotten their hands on: the complete server logs of Everquest 2, which track every action performed in the game.

Researchers ranging from psychologists to epidemiologists have wondered for some time whether online, multiplayer games might provide some ways to test concepts that are otherwise difficult to track in the real world. A Saturday morning session at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science described what might be the most likely way of finding out. With the cooperation of Sony, a collaborative group of academic researchers at a number of institutions have obtained the complete server logs from the company’s Everquest 2 MMORPG. Read the Full Article at Ars Technica.

For the most part, the article is an interesting read about what kind of information and practical use this kind of study can lead to. There’s been many attempts at studies involving Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMO’s), especially with Everquest II. Not long ago there was a survey done with ~2000+ users asking them a wide variety of questions concerning their gender, gaming habits, age etc. However, those kinds of study are depending on the honest input of the participants involving an environment that is all about the avatars and game face and online persona, not neccessarily the reality.

However, there’s already quite a bit of an upset in the online gaming community over this. Prime example includes this thread started over at MMORPG.com, one of the largest community sites for the general MMO crowd on the net. Many people feel that having all of their actions, trades, and communications in the game over the past four years just handed over to research freely was in direct violation of their privacy. For many, the game itself is more than just a game but also an online social experience. Guilds of players are formed, friendships are established and many people connect together in a virtual world almost as intimately as, say, gathering at a friends house every weekend. To have all of their IM’s and interactions given out is regarded like having all of their parties, social gatherings, and even intimate times with family, lovers and friends being recorded and then handed off to researchers without inquiry of consent.

Did S.O.E. violate the players rights?

My 2 coppers:
Sometimes players forget that these virtual worlds that they’re running around in and socializing, interacting and competing with others in are still not their worlds. They are a data network, owned 100% by the company, who makes a business off of selling client software to access their games and often times charge for their services for continued membership. When you install and play the game, you’re often prompted with an End User License Agreement (EULA) stating rules and policies and legal mumbo jumbo for the company. Part of that is usually that all actions you are doing on their servers will be monitored and logged. The only legal promise of privacy is that your real-world info in terms of credit card numbers, login names, emails and passwords will not be given out or sold. Every action you do in a game: Killing another player, running a dungeon, or having cybersex IM sessions with your Guild Leader’s sister, is logged and is information rightfully owned by the company.

MMO’s are not democracies. Even if the most sandbox and diplomatic player ran communities, in the end anything you say or do — even in whispers, private messages and IM’s….if it’s done in-game, it’s the network admin and owning company’s right to log. If you’re paranoid about the information getting out, don’t fucking blab it in an online game. Use your IM’s, emails, voice chat — anything that really is intended for private communication.

Did S.O.E. violate a player’s right to privacy? No.

Did they fuck up? In my opinion, yes.

S.O.E. has been nothing but controversy over the past few years. From drastic overhauls of their popular games that result in totally crushing all the work their thousands of subscribers and fans worked towards, changing the EULA immediately after releasing expansion products without warning (thus getting all the cash for the product prior to performing an act that they knew would offend the community); and plenty of other blunders that have turned off interest from their ever shrinking subscriber base. To make a move like that when the general online gaming population already thinks of you as the devil in terms of ruining great product lines and not listening to the community was just plain butt-humping stupid.

All because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

I was talking to a developer who was discussing the use of in-game communication being a vital tactic in online games. He proposed the concept of developing ways to “intercept” in-game communication. We’re talking even going as far as being able to possibly ease drop on voice communications of other players using the in-game chat. I told him that while that would add an element of paranoia and a whole new level of hardcore gaming experience, it would also deter a lot of people from the player base knowing that anything they say could be intercepted by other players. Many players would feel violated if they knew a conversation that they were having with, let’s say, a real life friend while playing pertaining to personal info might be used against them by a rival player out of game to harass them. And let’s be honest: The competetive nature of the assholes who play games just to grief people would take it that extra step. Besides, it would only take guilds and clans resorting to using 3rd party programs like Ventrilo or Teamspeak to circumvent that.

Regardless of what you say or do, online gamers do put an element of trust into the developers and operators of these online games that those in power won’t meddle in the affairs of the players and won’t give out the chat logs of everything said in the Guild Chat or in the private messages. SOE probably felt like they were handing their data over to analysts for the sake of learning something about their demographic and market. But the reality is, they handed out the actions of all their players in the past 4 years because a team of academics asked if they could put players under the microscope, so to speak.  We may be open in our blog cultures, but even there we’re selective and responsible for the content we share with the world.

The best advice I can give any developers or companies that lend an ear: Be upfront. Players may not like it, but we’d rather know ahead of time, and be given chances to back out. Hell, we’re usually more willing to play along if you approach us and give us a choice first. The whole “forgiveness is easier than permission” approach is bad business sense. Sure, you’ll have plenty of players who don’t care and will stay. The problem is: It’s the vocal minority that heads to the community boards and raises Cain that you need to be concerned about. They’re the ones that will probably be affecting any newcomers and potential new customers. I’m not saying you necessarily have to appease these crowds; but definitely be less shady about your practices (especially when you’re suffering from a bad track record already.)

On the flipside: If the company has such an awful track record, do you expect any less of them?