Williams receives NSF grant for group behavior research

Communication professor Dmitri Williams recently received a $176,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to research the dynamics of group behavior in virtual worlds.

“The project will expand our knowledge of how groups form and operate in larger ecosystems of groups, individuals, and organizations,” according to the award abstract. “The analysis of logs generated from virtual worlds poses novel challenges from a computational perspective.”

Williams' award is part of a larger grant given to co-principal investigators Noshir Contractor of Northwestern University and Marshall Poole of the University of Minnesota. The trio worked together to apply for the grant while at previous jobs at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Williams will use his sub-award portion to fund research assistants and the ongoing work on his Sony Project, titled "The Virtual World Exploratorium."

“The Virtual World Exploratorium project uses data from game servers to test social scientific theories,” Williams said. “By combining behavioral data with survey data, the project tests the validity of virtual worlds as research platforms, and offers theory testing at a very exact  -- second-by second over years -- and precise level. The data come from the massively multiplayer online game (MMO) EverQuest II (screenshot picture above left).”

Access to behavioral traces from EverQuest II gives Williams a glimpse into how groups form and operate in larger ecosystems. The game brings huge numbers of players together to complete “quests” and “raids” that involve activities similar to those people undertake in life such as gathering information or materials and making, selling or buying products and services.

Williams and his team plan to release a series of about 10 papers on this project during the next three years.