By Lilly Rockwell
On her first week on the job of managing an online gaming community for now-defunct Sega Soft, EM Stock received a message from a popular player.
It said the player had died in a house fire. A friend logged in to the game to alert the man's online friends.
"I felt terrible because a member of my community was gone," Stock said. "Players were distraught."
The whole thing turned out to be a hoax. Two weeks later, the player materialized and taunted others for falling for his prank.
Stock, who now works for Sony Online Entertainment in Austin, said players often do things in online worlds that they would never do in the real world. Posting a suicide note? Rare, but it happens. Getting virtually married to someone they've never actually met? A common occurrence. What about aggressive bullying? So frequent that it's hardly discussed.
At the Austin Game Developers Conference, which started Monday and ends Wednesday, Stock helped put together a panel Monday on the psychology of online gamers that was designed to address the sometimes eyebrow-raising behavior.
Only recently have some researchers started looking into the behavior of online gamers, such as those who play massively multiplayer online games like "World of Warcraft."
It's been rare for game companies to discuss touchy issues publicly because they fear that doing so will paint a certain game or company in a bad light. The companies already battle concerns that online gaming is addictive and that the violence in some games can lead to violence in real life.
"Psychologists see a tremendous opportunity there for us," said University of Texas psychology professor Sam Gosling. "It allows us to study things that are difficult to study in the real world, like social interactions."
Gosling said virtual worlds and online games give unparalleled access to people's social lives in a way that would be difficult to replicate in the real world. "It's all virgin territory," he said.
Some critics express the fear that troubling online behavior will have real-world consequences.
"The sky's the limit in the sense that there are no rules," said Frank Farley, a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and a former president of the American Psychological Association.
Psychologists are looking closer at online behavior, wondering if the new technology might also lead to new psychological diagnoses or problems.
Players might be tempted to act in offensive or strange ways because there are very few consequences, experts say.
"There are countless studies showing the greater the psychological distance, the more mischievous things we do," Gosling said.
For example, some players routinely lie about their real-world status, experts say.
Sean Dahlberg, a community manager for game company BioWare Corp., said he has known players who lie about being in the military to gain sympathy.
"The online world remains an anonymous place, and therefore, if you have a penchant (to lie), then it's home for you," Farley said. "We haven't figured out checks and balances."
The so-called strange behaviors could be misunderstood, said University of Texas assistant professor of communications Jorge Peña.
"Many of these bizarre behaviors are very strategic within context," Peña said.
As an example, he cited a male player who had unsuccessfully tried to join a guild in a popular multiplayer game that already had enough men. So the player informed members of the guild, through a friend, that he was dead. He later reappeared as a female player, was able to join the guild and played for a year undetected.
"So when you piece it together," Peña said, "the fake death was a strategic behavior with the goal of getting into the guild."
Other behaviors that are common in the real world crop up in online games, such as bullying or talking politics.
Bullying, or "griefing," another player is also common. Veteran players attack new players, killing their characters quickly or taunting them.
Although extreme behavior draws attention, there is plenty of good that can come of playing online games, experts say. For example, Farley said, it might help introverts develop friendships.
Dahlberg said that playing online games allows some people to establish a huge network of friends they wouldn't otherwise have.
"The online world is a great place to experiment, to try out new things," Farley said. "It's a frontier for creativity."