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One of the goals of anthropology is to understand the way that humans interact to form groups. Indeed, anthropologists have long known that human societies are highly structured.

But exactly what kinds of structures form and to what extent these groupings depend on the environment is still the subject of much debate. So an interesting question is whether humans form the same kinds of structures in online worlds as they do in real life.

Today, we get an answer thanks to the work of Benedikt Fuchs at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria and a couple of pals. These guys have studied the groups humans form when playing a massive multiplayer online game called Pardus.

Their conclusion is that humans naturally form into a fractal-like hierarchy in which people belong to a variety of groups on different scales. In fact, the formation of hierarchies seems to be an innate part of the human condition.

In Pardus, players explore a futuristic universe while interacting and competing in a player-driven economy. Since 2004, when the game went live, some 400,00 people have joined this world. These players can mark other people as friends, form into collectives to enhance their competitiveness and belong to other factions.

But crucially, whatever players do is recorded in the game, which is how researchers have become so interested in analyzing it.

Fuchs and co downloaded over three years’ worth of this data, including the complete information on social networks created by communicating, trading with and “liking” other players. Having reconstructed these networks and how they vary over time, Fuchs and co determine their complexity using a measure known as Horton-Strahler order.

This is a method mathematicians use to measure the complexity of a branching tree. It assigns an order to each part of the tree depending on the number of  “children” that branch away from it.

Twigs are at the end of branches, with no children, and so have the lowest order of 1. The branches in the hierarchy are then numbered according to the number of children they have. This allows parts of the hierarchy in vastly different parts of the tree to be compared.

Horton-Strahler ordering is regularly used to measure the branching complexity of everything from rivers and tributaries to high-level programming languages. And social networks of course.

Fuchs and co apply exactly this process to the networks in Pardus and found a branching hierarchy of seven levels. The first level are individuals themselves, level two turns out to be small groups of people who have marked each other as friends and have communicated recently.

Next are the people linked more weakly, who may have once traded or marked each other as friends but not communicated regularly. These show up in the third order.

The players can also form into Alliances, formal groups that gain certain game privileges. These show up in the fourth order. Then there are larger factions that form orders five and six. The seventh order comprises everyone in the entire game.

What’s interesting about these orders is not just their existence but their scale relative to each other. “Remarkably, the online players exhibit the same type of structured hierarchical layers as the societies studied by anthropologists, where each of these layers is three to four times the size of the lower layer,” say Fuchs and co.

That’s an interesting result. That the same hierarchy emerges in wildly different situations suggests that whatever produces this effect is independent of the environment. In other words, it must be an innate property of human social behavior.

Fuchs and co go even further. “Our findings suggest that the hierarchical organization of human society is deeply nested in human psychology,” they say.

An interesting conclusion. The question now is how to delve further into this psychology to tease it apart in more detail.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1403.3228  Fractal Multi-Level Organization Of Human Groups In A Virtual World

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