Cuihua "Cindy" Shen

Games that people play in the virtual world give Cuihua "Cindy" Shen a unique—and very big—window into human behavior.
Cuihua "Cindy" Shen

Cuihua "Cindy" Shen

Shen, an assistant professor of communication, sifts through terabytes of data from massively multiplayer online games like EverQuest II to study a wide range of social interactions, including networking, team performance, trust-building and economic transactions, and their real-world effects on people’s lives.

While surveys provide snapshots in time of people’s attitudes and experiences, Shen’s analysis of gaming data is more akin to making a series of epic movies. The data from game companies shows players’ behavior by the millisecond.

“It gives us an unprecedented scale of data for an entire population of players,” Shen says.

Debunking misconceptions

Her research, which also uses in-game surveys of players, is dispelling popular perceptions about gamers as misfit loners, refining notions of the ideal compositions of productive teams, and debunking the gender performance gap in online games.

Among her findings:

  • Spending hours playing online games with family and friends can actually enhance their social interactions. “It’s not just how much you play but who you play with that’s important,” she says.
  • Closeness among team members improves a group’s performance—but only up to a point, with a mix of known associates and strangers being optimum.
  • Female players, who are outnumbered four to one among regular players, perform equally as well and progress at least as fast as male gamers when their difference in playing time is taken into account.

Fascinated by human connections

Shen became interested in virtual communities the same way that many other people do — playing video games as a teenager. As a high school student in Suzhou, China, and as an undergraduate studying English literature and information systems at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, she joined multiplayer games on local networks.

illustration of woman and muscular man from Chinese online video gameEven then, she marveled at the opportunities for making human connections in the games. “I thought this was fascinating: We’re not just playing with the computer anymore.”

As a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, she made online gaming communities the focus of her research. She earned her Ph.D. there in 2010.

Huge databases

It was during her graduate studies in 2007 that she and her collaborators began collecting and analyzing big data from game companies. “They were sitting on huge databases, but they didn’t know what to do with them at that time,” Shen says. 

Illustration of character, High Elf Female Telethon, in video game with description of Wardens and a dialog box for "select class."For the social scientist, the data from Sony’s EverQuest II and the Chinese firm KingSoft’s Chevaliers’ Romance 3 (CR3) were mother lodes.

When she joined the UC Davis Department of Communication faculty in 2014, after four years as an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, she brought four terabytes of data with her. So far, her research findings have been reported in nearly 20 journal articles, chapters in four other books and numerous conference presentations. She also co-edited the book, "Predicting Real World Behaviors from Virtual World Data."

While death is less permanent in online games, there are many similarities in the way people interact in the virtual and real worlds, Shen says. “There is a lot you could study in terms of human behavior.”

A smiling Cindy Shen standing with arms crossed near two computer screens showing video game images.

Research innovations

In a novel use of a traditional social science tool, Shen and her collaborators have conducted surveys in the games, offering players game rewards like a virtual sword for participating. The response rates have been overwhelming—with about 20,000 CR3 players and 8,000 EverQuest II players answering her questions. “We have almost crashed the survey server because people were so willing to take the survey to get the reward.”

Using player IDs, Shen then matches survey answers with game behaviors. “To protect the privacy of the users, we do not have access to their real identities, only anonymized records."

The results can portray a broader picture of human interactions than do general social surveys alone. For instance, survey participants in China report an average of three to four friends or relatives with whom they discuss important matters in their lives. But among the predominately Chinese players of CR3, Shen found a significantly higher incidence of close interactions. “We don’t know if it’s because of their gaming, or because gamers are more social.”

In another line of research, funded by the National Science Foundation, Shen is investigating how people evaluate the credibility of images in social media.