Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as “Third Places”



This article examines the form and function of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) in terms of social engagement. Combining conclusions from media effects research informed by the communication effects literature with those from ethnographic research informed by a sociocultural perspective on cognition and learning, we present a shared theoretical framework for understanding (a) the extent to which such virtual worlds are structurally similar to “third places” (Oldenburg, 1999) for informal sociability, and (b) their potential function in terms of social capital (Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 2000). Our conclusion is that by providing spaces for social interaction and relationships beyond the workplace and home, MMOs have the capacity to function as one form of a new “third place” for informal sociability. Participation in such virtual “third places” appears particularly well suited to the formation of bridging social capital—social relationships that, while not usually providing deep emotional support, typically function to expose the individual to a diversity of worldviews.