Massive Multiplayer Online Games as “Third Places”
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]