Thursday, September 21, 2006

Last night I logged into EverQuest and ran around the Mines of Gloomingdark with a new character.
The short story of why I didn't play as my main character, Miyokko DeZeasez, is that there is a new race available in game. The Mines were full of dragon-blooded people running around and smashing rats with abandon.
Miyokko hung out, unplayed, but I still had a good time and was tempted to stay up and continue with the rat smashing until midnight. To my credit, I did not.
I read an article yesterday about Starbucks (you know, like I do) and the article talked about "Third Places". The idea is that home is your First Place. That is where a person can be comfortable and relax.
Second Place is where you are when you aren't at home, most likely a job or some junk. That would be where a person gains a sense of community and does the majority of socializing.
A Third Place, as defined by Starbucks, is somewhere a person can socialize and feel comfortable at the same time.
So last night, as my character again and again ran deep into Queen Gloomfang's lair to whack a spider and drag him out for my group, I thought about the other people sharing my game. I observed the chatter on the public and group channels and participated where appropriate. Online games are a very passable Third Place as defined by the eight criteria:

Neutral Ground: Individuals are free to come and go as they please. In online games, players are not obligated to play; leaving and coming back and leaving again 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. My avatar is modelled after our perpetually ill Siamese cat.

Conversation is the 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. Sometimes the word "w00+" is flung around as well.

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. In a game like EverQuest, the persistent world is big enough that there is always something to do.

The Regulars: Regulars are those who give the place its character, and attract new individuals. Guild members, who form an organization 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. In the case of EverQuest, I've done my best to recruit people back into an older game. It is very rich in content but the power gamers have largely moved on. There is more room for casual gaming.

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. Unless you jack up a planned and scheduled raid of a major monster. Then expect to pay for your own corpse retrieval fee.

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' absences and makes the overall feel of the game "warm".

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. At that point, the same drives that lend themselves to workplace productivity are utilized.

The eight characteristics (and an official study of their relation to online gaming) can be found here.

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