steinkuehler.jpgThe term “third place” refers to a social surrounding other than the home or workplace. The article Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as "Third Places", which stems from a joint study by Constance Steinkuehler, assistant professor in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dmitri Williams, assistant professor in the Speech Communication Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign seeks to debunk the myth of videogaming as a wholly anti-social form of entertainment. To most gamers, though, this seemed entirely obvious, and the study was dismissed by many as redundant.

However, the other side of that is that when the article was published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication in July, it was viewed as revelatory by mainstream media outlets like CNN. “Despite copious amounts of data to support it, the claim that online games are not anti-social but the opposite is apparently novel to many people,” says Steinkuehler.

The bulk of the article is a comparison of the properties of MMOs as compared to the characteristics of third places, as defined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg. This includes frameworks like whether “conversation is a main focus of activity in which playfulness and wit are collectively valued”, that the places are “easy to access and are accommodating to those who frequent them” and that the places can function as a “home away from home”. Seemingly, the only framework that MMOs don’t fit into is that third places must be “characteristically homely and without pretension”. However, the article notes that while “the visual form of MMO environments does not fit Oldenburg's criterion…the social function of those environments does”.

We contacted Steinkuehler via email to ask about the article, the reactions to it from gamers, and the social validity of MMOs as third places.

[Click through for the full interview.]

What were your findings in Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as "Third Places"?

Our general findings were that:

(a) Massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) function as third places for informal sociability, much like classic taverns, etc. do.
(b) They facilitate participants' "bridging social capital" -- the kind of friendships that are more casual than family and friends but that tend to expose a person to diversity.

In other words, MMOs are thoroughly social and have great potential to foster exposure to diversity.

Can you describe the concept of a third place?

Sure! A third place is a place beyond work and home where a person can go for informal social exchange. Think: Cheers, the bar, or European coffee shops.

What were your initial thoughts heading into this research? You make mention of Putnam's theories of "bowling alone" [which “suggests that media are displacing crucial civic and social institutions”] - was this something you considered accurate?

This work was borne out of a paper I originally wrote for a journal in Sweden. In it, I wanted to address how it is that American youth face a very different climate than their European counterparts, and how things like gaming are vilified by a largely-ignorant media & public while, in fact, they can be quite productive. Oldenburg actually states that games are not legitimate social interaction, that "sitting in a room at computer screens playing videogames is not a third place." However, he was utterly unaware of what people were actually doing behind the screen. Once you take a look at what folks are doing in, say, World of Warcraft, you realize that Oldenburg's original statement is actually inaccurate.

On that subject, a lot of gamers seem to have the had the reaction that the results were rather obvious.

Yes, the findings, at least the version presented all over the news, is very obvious -- to anyone with at least a rudimentary understanding of or experience with games, at least. I find it ironic that, out of all the research I've done on MMOs on cognition & literacy, its this piece the media finds such an interest. I think it just points to the incredible disconnect between gamers and a non-gaming but vocal public. For what its worth, the paper was rejected from the first American journal we submitted to, then had massive revisions for the second journal as one of the reviewers felt we were clearly biased and ignoring "all the research" showing how games were bad influences, bred anti-social behavior, what have you.

What was the thought behind the choices of games detailed in the article? Why not study something like World of Warcraft, or Second Life - both of which have bigger user bases than the games in the article?

It takes some time to do research and finally publish the outcomes. When this research was originally done, WoW wasn't even released. And your statement on SL is wrong: Lineage I & II was, until WoW the single best selling title globally with over 4 million people playing it. SL doesn't have those kind of numbers. WoW does, obviously, and that's what I study now. But, at the time of this research, it just wasn't out yet. I don't know what Dmitri picked Asheron's Call, but I picked Lineage because it was the biggest game globally.

What was your methodology for the article?

This is outlined in the paper. We combined findings from two massive studies: My work, which was a 2+ year online cognitive ethnography of Lineage I & II, and Dmitri's work, which was a massive media effects study.

What was the level of collaboration between yourself and Dmitri Williams on the article?

I originally wrote a small invited piece on "MMOGs at third places" for a journal in Sweden. I sent it to my good colleague Dmitri as I had cited some of his work in it. He really liked the theoretical framework I was offering and suggested we collaborate on a piece for a journal here in the states. So, we co-authored from there. He and I have worked together for years, and have gamed together online quite a bit, so it was a natural collaboration.

Do you think there is a risk of MMOs taking over from traditional third places for some gamers? You mention the idea of a third place being a "home away from home", but do you think there is the risk of this being taken too far?

For a very rare handful of folks, there will be problems. But, then, for a handful of folks there are always problems. Look at the workaholics in America and you'll see my point. Research shows that playing such games is not replacing time with family or out socialising with RL friends; it’s mostly replacing television viewing. Dmitri has some great stats on this.

One of the points where your article moved away from the research of Oldenburg was with the idea of a third place being having a "low profile". Did you initially see this as a problem in your research?

Well, the spirit of low profile -- that the context can't be a pretentious one -- still holds, but the requirement that the visual context needs to be plain or homely just doesn't work out as well online, where there are lots of visually fabulous "places" to hang out (like Lineage II towns, for example, or the Barrens in WoW) that are still, well, homely in a certain way, certainly not the equivalent to an opera house IRL or something.

Do you think MMOs are as valid socially as third places as "real life" ones?

Yes, of course. Many of my academic colleagues I only know online. Does that mean they’re somehow "less" colleagues than others? Or less real? Not at all. I think it’s only an older generation that didn't grow up online that worries about such things. Some things you need physical contact for, like contact sports and sex. Other things you don't, like running a 5-man in Stratholme and sharing a good laugh over you spectacular wipe there.

Finally, do you consider yourself a gamer?

God yes.