A Letter from Pharaoh

Citizens of Egypt,

Just a short newsletter about a new “social experiment” that we’re about to try. But first, I need to talk to you about “Dunbar’s Number.”
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar hypothesized that there are certain stable sizes that groups of humans tend to naturally form. Depending on the type of group (extended families, cultural lineage groups, tribes), the numbers cluster around 50, 150, and 2500 (upper limit.)
We’re toward the end of our fourth Tale in the Desert (preparations are underway for ATITD V!), but I’ve noticed a pattern in each Tale: Our peak subscriber count has ranged from 1750 to 2500, always about 30 days in, and regardless of the peak, we settle down to a population of around 1100 subscribers (slightly lower this Tale, slightly higher in Tale 2) where we remain for most of the Tale.
Could there be a “Dunbar’s Number” for A Tale in the Desert? If there is – if the game design itself leads to a population of around 1100 subscribers, then growing “the” ATITD community may be the wrong approach – we should try to create a second ATITD community! And if this experiment succeeds, a third and more.
So to test that theory, we’re going to start a second ATITD IV shard, beginning on February 20. I’ll have more details about “Shard Bastet” next week, but if you’ve always wanted to get in on the beginning of a Tale, this is a great opportunity to do just that.
I’d be most interested to hear thoughts on this from those that have been away from ATITD for a while.

On the Nile,

7 thoughts on “A Letter from Pharaoh”

  1. I’m a firm believer in the theory behind Dunbar’s number, but I’ve always felt the numbers usually given are too arbitrary for such a sound principle.

    The Bernard-Killworth researched numbers make more sense to me, somewhere between 230-290 for personal networks.

    This is just one reason I’ve always been boggled when MMORPGs have this obsession with adding more and more players per server.

    In my experience, smaller servers tend to create stronger communities. Better networks between players, so it makes sense.

    1. Rog, you’re making a critical logical mistake in your thinking regarding smaller servers: treating all users as if they had identical interests, needs, login schedules, and desires in social connections.

      If your goal is to force every player to be less selective in their social networks, then yes, small servers do that. If you want people to find a good critical mass of people that share their interests, play-style preferences, and online schedule, you need larger server capacities.

      1. Exactly. On a large server I feel like I can always find someone wanting to do the same stuff as me, whereas in a large guild (500+) I feel overwhelmed by the number of people in chat.

  2. Hey man this sounds like a really cool research idea. You should consider keeping track of what happens and recording it for a social science journal. It’s a fun community of researchers. Check out hatac.org or tiltfactor.org.

    Or check out this call, fits your experiment perfectly (though its admittedly a tad wordy)

    “Digital Game Play as Sociotechnical Practice

    September 02 2010 | Trento, Italy

    Deadline: March 15 2010


    The Digital Game industry has become one of the fastest growing,
    innovative and globalised industries in advanced Western economies and
    Digital Games have become a key cultural artefact and leisure practice
    in contemporary societies. Developing out of the American military
    industrial and academic complex in the 1970s the study of Digital
    Games design and play is the study of a range of sociotechnical
    practices and the negotiations between a range of human and non-human
    actors operating within systems of rules. The complexity of these
    relationships brings forth a series of questions that can be
    investigated using Science and Technology Studies approaches. However,
    to date games studies, with few exceptions, have failed to adopt STS
    approaches and the STS community has largely ignored this area of

    This track seeks to develop the relationship between the game studies
    community and the STS community. Several research questions can be
    used to guide this: What STS theories can be used to understand
    Digital Games as sociotechnical phenomenon? Is the concept of practice
    and the practice-based approach useful to investigate Digital Games?
    Is there a relationship between power as inscribed and imposed by
    artefacts and the technical dimensions of Digital Games? What rules
    are inscribed into Digital Games technologies and what social worlds
    do these rules describe? What contribution can the study of Digital
    Games make to the STS discipline at large? And what contribution can
    an STS approach make to game studies? Can we foresee an after-method
    approach for Digital Games? We invite papers that tackle the
    sociotechnical dimensions of Digital Games and address some of the
    questions outlined above. Contributions might include (but are not
    restricted to):

    • Digital Games as material semiotic artefacts
    • Digital Games as sociotechnical assemblages
    • The mess of digital games
    • Innovation in game design as actor-networking and social shaping
    • Digital Game design and/or play as performance and practice
    • Disruptive sociotechnical users’ practices (e.g. hacking, modding)
    • The scripting of gendered gaming practices
    • Governance and regulation of gaming practices

    Abstracts of no more than 500 words should be sent by email (following
    website instructions:
    http://events.unitn.it/en/easst010/abstract-submission by 2010 March
    15th. Please include also a preliminary references list (up to 4).
    Contact for inquiries: stefano.depaoli@nuim.ie

  3. MMOs are an interesting test bed for social theory. If they didn’t have to be fun to play, imagine the science we could get done!

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