Massive multiplayer online (MMO) games may play an important social function that has otherwise been lacking in present-day society. At least, that's what an interdisciplinary team of researchers have presented in a report published in the US Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication early this month.
In the report, titled "Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as 'Third Places' ", authors Dmitri Williams of the University of Illinois, and Constance Steinkuehler of the University of Wisconsin, suggest that gamers have been driven to MMOs by the lack of hangouts in real life.
"By providing places for social interaction and relationships beyond the workplace and home, MMOs have the capacity to function much like the hangouts of old," they said.
Through surveys, experiments, interviews with gamers and even personal experience of the games Lineage I and II, and Asheron's Call I and II, the researchers concluded that some MMOs even "promote sociability and new worldviews".
"With relative anonymity," Williams explained, "people are exposed to a wide range of other people they might not normally meet - think different ages, genders, political orientations, religions, etc."
"These relationships are also often positive because they begin with a common interest, and can be cemented by the game's mechanic."
He noted, however, that while anonymity may promote what he calls "social horizon broadening", it also means that players often do not share their true backgrounds and real-life experiences. This can lead to in-game relationships that are shallower and shorter-term than those fostered in real life.
The researchers report that there are more than nine million people worldwide who spend an average of 20 hours a week in MMO worlds. That's more than twice the population of Sydney spending an equivalent time in-game as others would on a part-time job.
And not all these gamers are getting the social benefits of game play that the researchers suggest.
"Our conclusions about sociability in these games apply to MMOs in which there is an incentive to work together, which is nearly all of them and for most play styles - but not all," Williams said.
Williams expects the same trends to apply to most games - be they role play (RPG), strategy (RTS) or shoot 'em ups (FPS) - where gamers are required to cooperate over multiple sessions, or extended periods of time.
He said, "Sociability is only going to build over time if the players can repeatedly run into one another, and in some popular games like StarCraft, that doesn't happen very much.
"For FPS titles, we [sometimes] see the formation of clans comprised of players who want exactly that longer-term association. What starts as a reason to succeed in the game could translate into out-of-game contact. We don't know how common or uncommon that is."
As an academic in the field of speech communication, Williams was hesitant to suggest a healthy amount of in-game time.
"I'm sure it varies from person to person and has a lot to do with moderation and balance in one's offline life," he said.