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Dmitri Williams talks big data and the virtual world’s who’s who

If you want to know someone, look at how they play games.

So says Dmitri Williams, the School of Communication’s 2012 Van Zelst Lecturer, who gave his audience a searing look into the world of online gaming October 2.

Williams, an associate professor at the Annenberg School of Communication, the co-founder and CEO of the computer analytics start-up Ninja Metrics, and the first researcher to use online games for experiments, spoke to a large and engaged crowd at the School of Communication’s 29th annual Van Zelst Lecture.

Williams began his talk by thanking Louann Van Zelst (C49 GC51) and the late Theodore Van Zelst (McC45, GMcC48), whose generosity make what Dean Barbara O’Keefe called the “very forward-looking” lecture program possible. Louann Van Zelst was in attendance, along with her children, Jean Bierner, Anne Orvieto, and David Van Zelst.

Williams explained that he has been studying games and gamers for over fifteen years. “When 98% of all youth do something,” he said, “you’ve got to understand what’s going on and why.”


The Van Zelst family, from left, Anne Orvieto, (front) Louann Van Zelst, (back) David Van Zelst, and Jean Bierner.

His curiosity and persistence (for years he pestered gaming companies to share their information with him) ultimately led to an enormous data grab: Sony Online Entertainment sent him a hard drive that contained two terabytes of compressed information—a file so huge and unformatted that it took a team of engineers to help Williams unlock it.

This “big data,” as he called it, along with surveys and other research conducted by Williams and his team, led them to an unparalleled understanding of the online gaming community. “By looking at virtual data, we can tell you what gender a person is by how they behave,” Williams said, “And how old they are just by how they play.” This research has huge implications for the study of gaming addiction, online communities, and countless other spheres.

Williams called his data model “a living laboratory,” and he continues to study the psychology of online populations with projects involving economics, neuroscience, even policy formation. “If Ben Bernanke had a chance to look at some of this stuff,” he said, “who’s to say it wouldn’t give him ideas about what to do at the Fed?”