Massive Multiplayer Online Games as “Third Places”

September 19, 2006 at 10:32 pm 46 comments

A major concern of home media such as television and the Internet is that they are replacing essential social institutions and community. While a previous post has indicated that this might not be true, this research paper looks at massive multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft to determine if they are indeed “third places”.

What is a third place? The first place is your home, where you can relax and be comfortable. The second place is where you usually are when not at home — work; work provides social interaction and sense of community. Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks introduced third places as somewhere besides home or work where people can socialize and feel comfortable. Think Cheers.

Online games are thus third places as defined by the eight characteristics of third places.

Neutral Ground: Individuals are free to come and go as they please. In online games, players are not obligated to play; joins and quits are not significant events.

Leveler: An individual’s rank and status in society are not significant. As in the culture of early video game arcades, “It didn’t matter what you drove to the arcade. If you sucked at Asteroids, you just sucked.” Players on online games use a separate avatar unrelated to their real life person, and social status is rarely invoked.

Conversation is Main Activity: In third places, conversation is the main activity that the individuals participate in. While debatable as the main activity in online games, players would not disagree that conversation plays a crucial role. Often, conversation drifts to real world discussion such as personal life, politics, culture, etc.

Accessibility & Accommodation: Third places are easy to access and accommodating to individuals. Online games allow players to log on and off at will and there are always players online. Activity occurs throughout all hours of the day.

The Regulars: Regulars are those who give the place its character, and attract new individuals. Guild members, who form a clan to play the online game together, and squatters, who stay within an area of the game, are the regulars of the online world.

A Low Profile: Third places are characteristically homely and without pretension. The population of online games follow a parabolic curve; after the onset of players following the release, the regulars remain while many move on to higher profile games.

The Mood is Playful: The general mood of a third place is playful and witty. Players in online games crack jokes during heated battles, perform goofy actions with their avatars, and mock each others’ appearances. Rarely are players overly serious about game matters.

A Home Away from Home: Rootedness, feelings of possession, spiritual regeneration, feelings of being at ease, and warmth. Online games possess a homely atmosphere where players notice others’ absenses and makes the overall feel of the game “warm”.

Social capital is analogous to financial capital in that it can be acquired and spent, but for social gains instead of financial gains — for example, to be comforted or receive advice. Bridging is when individuals connect with those from different backgrounds. The advantage if bridging social capital include gaining access to new information and resources. Bonding is when individuals that are already close provide support for each other, making the relationship stronger. In a sense, bridging provides breadth while bonding provides depth.

In online games, players come from a diverse background so they are usually bridging social capital. However, it’s not uncommon for a bond to grow during an online game if individuals player together for a long period of time.

Online games fit the definition of a third place, but as players become more hardcore and focus more on gaming, their function as a third place wanes.

I read this paper after attending a related talk by one of the authors, and you might find his other publications just as interesting.

Steinkuehler, C. & Williams, D. (2006). Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as “Third Places”. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(4), article 1. [HTML]

Entry filed under: Communication, Internet, Online Games, Sociology, Third Places.

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46 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tony  |  September 20, 2006 at 8:23 am

    Absolutely true, all of it. I play online games not only because I enjoy gaming, but because it’s a great way to keep in touch with friends and family from all over the world. Why should our expereiences be any less significant if they are created within a game? You may call it only a game, because they are after all games at heart, but MMO worlds have become so much more than that. You need only try one out for yourself. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

  • 2. Khannea Suntzu  |  September 20, 2006 at 8:27 am

    I am a tall girl IRL, not the prettiest, average face, average body and worst of all 41 by now and without a job because I am permanently disabled. Sure I have a nice house, a really nice spouse, two great dogs and great friends – but there’s something missing. No vacations, no car, no parties (or not very much and with the cheap dip only).

    But in Second Life… I am a glamorous model, semi-intellectual, extremely desireable and in a passionate, rather perverse relationship with another whore. I have been labelled a “celebrity” several times today. I make stuff, am free to walk in the most extreme places, break the rules all the time and do shocking things, most of which would be illegal if done in the real world.

    And i have love ! The most idioticly perfect, passionate kind.

    Ok, SL is still of a graphics quality and interface design belonging in the goddamn nineties… but it is free ! I am a star in here.

    Now look at a graphics site such as or renderotica. Do a search for the animations there… Some or pretty raunchy so don’t be shocked. Imagine those in-game, in a major MMO, in 2015, with the potential for 50 million users online, at any one time, all over the imaginary world. With good graphics, the best good interface and mostly hack proof.

    The consequences would be disastrous for movie, TV and other similar entertainment media. It’ll be more addictive than coffee.

  • 3. Teiman  |  September 20, 2006 at 8:28 am


  • 4. Dr. Kyle Glasgow  |  September 20, 2006 at 10:53 am

    Absolutely they are third places. And they might just be adding to the social network rather than taking away from it. I believe this so much that I wrote a dissertation on it ;)

    I was interested in hearing how people describe their connection with others online. I had the experience of developing relationships that were different than my RL ones, but still satisfied that ‘need for connection’ And playing the games with a group of friends was simply fun.

    Anyone whose interested in hearing about how other players experience connection can check out chapter 5 at the above link.

  • 5. Retired Geezer  |  September 20, 2006 at 11:02 am

    Good post.
    I linked it at Innocent Bystanders

    Ace of Spades

  • 6. Justin  |  September 20, 2006 at 12:03 pm

    The third place comes third. Stresses from 1 and 2 boil down to the third place. I don’t think think the third place rolls up into who a person is. Playing a MMORPG is great as long as you have some balance with your home / work. If home or work faulters you will sit and wonder why you sunk so many hours into something unredeemable.

  • 7. Aleina Spears  |  September 20, 2006 at 12:24 pm

    Just wanted to share information that one can also get addicted to RPG or any online game. I personally have seen and viewed this action to happen with many individuals. I do feel it is also a 3rd place to go to. I sit here and wonder where an addicted individual can get help. LMAO I am sitting here typing back to a 3rd place at this moment even though it is not a game it is a 3rd place for an individual can talk and interact with comments. Guess I am addicted to 3rd places. Have a great day!

  • 8. brucepro  |  September 20, 2006 at 12:29 pm

    have to agree. The escapism aspects of those environments can easily overcome real life.

  • 9. Jen  |  September 20, 2006 at 3:36 pm

    Totally agree, I’ve been playing WoW for two years now and I’d much rather hang out with my friends there than going to bars and getting drunk, which is the typical social activity of other girls my age in this area. I’ve made good friends, and I don’t have a hangover in the morning.

  • 10. Barnabas  |  September 20, 2006 at 4:32 pm

    I play my favorite MMO because I’m a disabled shutin who has absolutely no life whatsover (and no desire for one), and far too much time on my hands. The reason it’s an MMO (instead of stand-alone fare) is because I enjoy having conversation with other players – so the ‘Conversation is Main Activity’ is a biggie for me, but I find that most of the rest of it applies as well. Of course, the fact that the game I play is the best one I’ve ever played *also* rates highly on my list. =)

  • 11. tjaden  |  September 20, 2006 at 4:56 pm

    a very true and interesting article but it had very little feeling

  • 12. hatgirl  |  September 20, 2006 at 8:26 pm

    I was addicted to Everquest awhile back ago. Was up to level 35 before I realized how much time I was just sitting sitting and watching my life pass me by. I am a bit reclusive, and it’s difficult to open the door to the outside world. But I want to. And I am. Slowly but surely. I am happier with the knowlege that I am at least trying to live my life to it’s fullest. Instead of living in a made up world. Besides, my best friend at the time left her husband for an online gamer, moved to the Eastcoast, had this guy’s baby, broke up…now back home fighting a custody battle.

  • 13. Jeremy  |  September 20, 2006 at 10:01 pm

    I believe online games can be safe for some people. However, I believe that too many people are addicted and wasting their lives away. I speak from experience. From about age 23 to 26, when I should have been pursuing a career, I was playing Ultima Online. I played up to 14 hours a day. I wasn’t doing anything with my life. One day I thought about how much time I was wasting and how if I put the same time into “advancing skills” in real life, I could probably accomplish something. When I came to that realization, I uninstalled the game, broke the CD, and cancelled my account with no option to reinstate. I began learning the guitar, playing racquetball, and learning about computers. Eight years later I’m a sponsored racquetball player, Web Architect, new dad, husband, lover, business owner, and everything else I know I would not be if I had continued to play games.

  • 14. ayazmahmood  |  September 21, 2006 at 12:36 am

    I agree with Tony..It is a great source of keeping in touch with fiends beside playing interesting games…

  • 15. Nasir  |  September 21, 2006 at 2:27 am

    No daubt games are source of relief for some people but many people spoiling their lives by wasting their time in games.

  • 16. Ken  |  September 21, 2006 at 3:49 am

    not see too many post and blogs, as orgnised and neat as this one. thoroughtly impressed, and was immersed….

    keep writing..
    thx & rgds

  • 17. FFXI Player  |  September 21, 2006 at 8:30 am

    I think some of these things may differ in MMOs (though in my experience the seriousness is the same in many of them), but in many games there is less emphasis on “game” and more “serious business”.. There are in-game rules, codes and morals that players are /expected/ to follow such as not leaving right after leveling, warning your group before you leave, etc. etc. There’s also a lot of serious drama that happens in many MMOs, but perhaps these are a few of the defining points between a “noobie/casual player” and a seasoned MMO player.

  • 18. Chris Rohde  |  September 21, 2006 at 9:47 am

    I left a post on the “addictive” side of MMO’s on my blog last month…. I would leave a link, but I am unsure of how to do that. I don’t personally believe in the addictive argument, but the idea of an MMO as a third place is definitely a solid truth. I have played WoW for just about 2 years now, and I value the communication and friendships over anything else in the game (its what brought me back after I quit for a month or two).

    If you get the chance, check out the post I have on my blog, titled “Ridiculous Studies.” It has a link to a great article (I don’t agree with it, but its good anyway)… like I said, I would link it but I can’t remember how. lol.


  • 19. gamehawk  |  September 23, 2006 at 7:27 am

    Interesting, but kind of an odd subject to put such time into. I’ve subscribed to your feed though.

  • 20. The Doctor  |  September 23, 2006 at 11:42 pm

    Unfortunately for some, MMOG becomes a second place.

  • 21. cube3  |  September 25, 2006 at 6:35 pm

    Ok….ill bite.
    the 3 stands for “Thirdspace” in STARBASE C3 at

    LOL.. first 3pointD now Thirdspace, why not call it web3d like those who have been doing it for 10 years…lol

    oh yeah, hype plug for newbie pundits..

    Original Thirdspace Sci Fi Online Come to Second and Real Life !….

    Starbase C3 Outposts- Many in SL- Seach “starbase”

  • 22. roy  |  November 3, 2006 at 1:30 pm

    i love online gaming and easpeacialy online iv learned english but from tokoyo i think online gaming is a diffirent way to express your-self and to make new friends im only 10 but love gaming if you should try its quit good and every ones nice (well most of them) you can do lots of stuff like…. join a hoverboard,buggy,hoverbike team! you can also do fashion shows and stuff… but its really fun

  • 23. isaaac adams  |  December 1, 2006 at 10:13 pm

    i love online gaming and easpeacialy online iv learned english but from tokoyo i think online gaming is a diffirent way to express your-self and to make new friends im only 10 but love gaming if you should try its quit good and every ones nice (well most of them) you can do lots of stuff like…. join a hoverboard,buggy,hoverbike team! you can also do fashion shows and stuff… but its really fun

    i copied lol just for the heck of it

  • 24. Kerry  |  May 29, 2007 at 10:41 am

    SecondLife may be a threat to MySpace but we should all be watching out for the new ideas out there like and

  • 25. Cjw26  |  June 18, 2007 at 6:28 am

    What r u guys talking about runescape is a much better game live ur life onit i didnt even read any on ur comments cya

  • 26. Graham  |  September 11, 2007 at 10:02 am

    I personally think that the games are not the issue here. The games are just a tool for weaker individuals to use a form of escape. I play games but I dont live by them. I only play unranked games and I play for recreation but I limit my use as its easy to get too involved. The problem is games get better and they are inteneded to make you feel like not much time has passed and this sucks you in. I know a person who now has realised he used games as an escape, but I think it goes deeper than that still and becomes more of an addiction with mmorpg’s and ranked online games because people love compitition. But one quote I heard from my friend is, life is better when I have my headset on I get respect people like my and my life is better, plus I’m not a n00b anymore and it makes it more fun. The new language has to be looked at and I also feel that people that play games so religiously should be helped and not shunned.

    As for the “third place” reference I disagree, the third place in gaming only exists if its recreational. For pro gamers and the people who use games as an escape. Games become, not a part of one’s life, their actual life and forces an individual to put their life on hold for this cause.

  • 27. snarky  |  September 23, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    Online gaming seems to be a social breakdown theory. Putting it plainly, people need to get out more and have “real life” interactions without a computer screen between them and the rest of the world. Gsming csn substitute for a hobby in some cases but its excessive. Too msny people spend too much time on these topics. Then they wonder why the are single, or lonely, hmmm, what a conundrum!

  • 28. Young Cornell West  |  October 2, 2007 at 9:20 am

    I think that any form of expression or escape from the daily monotony of life is beneficial. Video games, virtual computer reality, and online avenues in my opinion by definition constitutes a third place. Online gaming falls into that category. I believe in doing everything in moderation, but I can see how online gaming and such activities can be addictive and in some cases a way to take time from venturing out to fitness centers, parks, and other social gatherings.
    As long as people are not harming others, I see no problem entertaining themselves online, hopefully they can continue to work on their real people skills in that capacity. My personal third place is a local fitness center.

  • 29. A swivelling cesspool of turgid ideas  |  December 24, 2007 at 7:43 pm

    I’m the personal assistant to woman who’s had a hip and knee replacement. I admit I play Runescape for hours on end at night, but it’s because we only have PC and the night hours are when she’s off the puter. Before I met her I’d usually play a game for 2hrs or so a day I do other things only wanting to satisfy a daily goal. We’ll be getting a laptop Feb of 2008 and that’ll help because then I’ll have a PC of my own and spend less time playing.

  • 30. mahmoud abdul hamid  |  April 26, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    i like the game bcoz its fun andu can talk with aloooooooooooot of frndz.when i was playing i saw i boy called jordon i said “how r u??”(4 fun)then he said good asshole then when he nsaid that i always play against him then at last a didnt play it any more.BUT IT WAS A GOOD GAME LIKE “JELLY BATTLE”

  • 31. Ben  |  May 21, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    I love to play online games but I don’t involve in these games deeply. I know I have to live with the realities of life and I can’t escape from them.

  • 32. jason  |  June 7, 2008 at 10:52 am

    to play more games

  • 33. Ashwaria  |  March 8, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Games are source of relief for some people.but so many people
    people spoiling their lives by wasting their time in games.that is not are only a source to fell relax

  • 34. Langeweile  |  April 24, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    I’m sure online games are for sure “safe”, those ppl have a psychic defect or smth like that.. But you have great aspects there.. go on with your work!

  • 35. Victoria  |  May 8, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    I HAVE NO IDEA WAT THIS THING IS! some1 explain it 2 me….. am am must be STUPID……………………….

  • 36. sandrar  |  September 10, 2009 at 4:46 pm

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

  • 37. James  |  May 8, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Video games for me were nothing but a stress giver. Every time I had lost a match with someone, I would go out of control. Yeah I sound like a retard in anger management classes but hey I just don’t like to lose.

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  • 45. smart fashion buying house  |  July 28, 2017 at 11:11 pm

    But in Second Life… I am a glamorous model, semi-intellectual, extremely desireable and in a passionate, rather perverse relationship with another whore. I have been labelled a “celebrity” several times today. I make stuff, am free to walk in the most extreme places, break the rules all the time and do shocking things, most of which would be illegal if done in the real world.

  • 46. Arnob Endry  |  July 28, 2017 at 11:12 pm

    parks, and other social gatherings.
    As long as people are not harming others, I see no problem entertaining themselves online, hopefully they can continue to work on their real people skills in that capacity. My personal third place is a local fitness center.


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