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In many fields of endeavour, the notion of team spirit is an important component of success. The idea is that friendships and understanding between team members will help them perform at a higher level. 

There’s certainly plenty of anecdotal evidence to back up this idea but relatively little research. Most has come from the field of management science and has focused on designing effective environments for success in education and in business. 

Today, Winter Mason at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey and  Aaron Clauset at the University of Colorado in Boulder, take an entirely different approach to this problem. These guys have looked at the behaviour of friends in the massively multiplayer online first person shooter game: Halo: Reach, in which players can form into teams to play.

In this game, players can tag others as friends so its relatively straightforward to download game files and see who has been playing with whom.  

What adds a a little extra interest to this work is that Mason and Clauset also conducted an online survey of over 100 Halo: Reach players, asking them about their playing style, their feelings towards group play and also about their friends. 

That’s important because it gives a kind of off-line ground-truth reading of friendship against which to compare the online tags of friendship. 

Mason and Clauset then hunted through all the Halo: Reach games ever played, almost a billion of them, looking for those involving the players who took part in the survey. That yielded a set of some 2.5 million games.

They then compared the behaviour of people playing with friends against those playing with strangers.

It turns out that playing with friends can dramatically change playing behaviour. For example, friends can sometimes be placed on opposing teams by the game’s built-in teaming algorithm, which attempts to even up the skills of both teams. 

“When this happens, friends tend to defect against their teammates, illustrated by a nearly double betrayal rate when two friends are on the opposing team,” say Mason and Clauset.

But the key finding is that playing on the same side as friends can significantly improve performance. “Both team and individual performance in Halo: Reach are improved by friendship variables. Teams composed of friends, on average, win more games than teams composed of strangers,” they conclude. What’s more, the effect is stronger for offline friends than for online ones.

That’s not really very surprising but it does help to place some science behind one of sports great locker-room secrets–that playing with your mates boosts team performance. 

There’s also a corollary. Mason and Clauset say their result should make it easier to identify friends in these kinds of games simply because they perform better than expected. And that should allow more detailed analysis of friendships in these kinds of games without the need for detailed surveys. 

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1203.2268: Friends FTW! Friendship And Competition In Halo: Reach

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