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Column: 'Blogged Out: In Third Place'

In his latest 'Blogged Out' column, veteran UK writer Jim Rossignol takes a look at the world of developer blogging, with a visit to the darkest corners of 'computer-mediated communication'.
Welcome to 'Blogged Out', the news report that looks at the world of developer blogging and the conversations being had with the community at large. This week: the bloggings of academia. In Third Place This week I’ve been browsing various research blogs and websites that concern themselves with scientific and social research. While there is a vast range of academic resources available on the web many of the more interesting pieces of research are inaccessible or invisible to the casual browser. It takes time and patience to sort through the journals, and I found myself wishing that academia had the benefit of the sheer number of hard-working news aggregators as does the gaming industry. Uncovering the latest insights in cyber-psychology takes some grit. Lucky then that a gaming chum of your blogosphere correspondent pointed towards the appropriately titled ‘Tasty Research’, a blog that links and examines various papers and surveys which might be of interest to the contemporary technophile. Some of these are, of course, relevant to gaming. This week, Tasty Research examines an MMO research paper published by the excellent ‘Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication’. The project asks whether games like World Of Warcraft are ‘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.” The piece goes on to explain how the ‘Third Place’ is somewhere that generates ‘social capital’ for the people who frequent it. “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.” Tasty Spaces The more hardcore the play, the less it is a Third Place? I’m wasn’t sure that I agreed with that, but the point made by the authors of the paper, Steinkuehler and Williams, is that complex activities such as raiding no longer perform ‘bridging’ activities, since they become more like military hierarchies. There’s a lot of bonding in the military, but the spaces such organisations inhabit does not allow for bridging between peoples and cultures. The kind of online socialising required to have the shared understanding adequate to perform complex team-based tasks makes the space less neutral and more competitive. Less like a night out on the town, and more like attending a sports tournament. More like work. That sounds true to me. I’ve been playing online games obsessively for the past decade and I have to agree that “this is accepted as a reasonable trade-off for access to more complex collaborative gameplay.” Games that are genuinely ‘third-places’ to me are those which are not games at all. I log on to Second Life if I want to talk and socialise, and to Eve and World Of Warcraft when I want to work with people who have similar skills and focus. I have to admit that I spend a lot of places in these virtual ‘second places’. And maybe that's a good thing. After all, I already spend enough time at the pub... [Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK – his game journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times.]

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