Virtual “Third Places”: A Case Study of Sociability in Massively Multiplayer Games
Georg Simmel [ American Journal of Sociology 55:254–261 (1949)] is widely credited as the first scholar to have seriously examined sociability – “the sheer pleasure of the company of others” and the central ingredient in many social forms of recreation and play. Later Ray Oldenburg [ The Great Good Place . New York: Marlowe & Company (1989)] extended Simmel’s work by focusing on a certain class of public settings, or “third places,” in which sociability tends to occur, such as, bars, coffee shops, general stores, etc. But while Simmel and Oldenburg describe activities and public spaces in the physical world, their concepts may apply as well to virtual or online worlds. Today Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) are extensive, persistent online 3D environments that are populated by hundreds of thousands of players at any given moment. The sociable nature of these online spaces is often used to explain their success: unlike previous video games, MMOGs require players to exchange information and collaborate in real-time to progress in the game. In order to shed light on this issue, we critically examine player-to-player interactions in a popular MMOG (Star Wars Galaxies). Based on several months of ethnographic observations and computerized data collection, we use Oldenburg’s notion of “third places” to evaluate whether or not the social spaces of this virtual world fit existing definitions of sociable environments. We discuss the role online games can play in the formation and maintenance of social capital, what they can teach us about the evolution of sociability in an increasingly digitally connected social world, and what could be done to make such games better social spaces.