Constance (your home page screenshot scares me) and I recently published a paper (readable online) in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication in which we lay out a theory of why people are socially motivated to play MMOs.
In short, we crib from sociologist Ray Oldenberg's theory of "third places," and suggest not only that MMOs fulfill many of the same functions, but that this period in history is marked by a dramatic need to find community.
The paper is titled
"Where Everybody Knows Your Screen Name," in a nod to the fictional TV bar in "Cheers."
Doesn't everybody want to go to a place where they are known, and where the regular rules of daily life don't weigh you down?
Oldenberg suggests that we all need a place that isn't work or home because we need social outlets. We need time out from our daily grind (oh, the irony), and a chance to meet new people and hang out with the regulars. In a healthy society, these places form the building blocks of good communities and civic life. Classes and ages mix, ideas are exchanged, and the pace of life is moderated. Think the Spanish town square, the Italian piazza, the Greek taberna and the American, err, umm. Ok, America just has the mall, which is pretty sad.
The idea we toss out there is that MMOs, and other online spaces, are beginning to take on this key function. We assume that people have always wanted community and connection, but that we have been atomized by suburb culture and the convenience of modern media, which have kept us inside and away from one another rather than out in public and mingling. How ironic, then, that a new media technology might be the thing that gets us back together.
Kind of. Of course, online communication is different than offline, and debates rage about whether online community "counts." We take a shot at where and how it does in MMOs, and when we think this is a healthy thing and when it might not be.
As a last aside, both Constance and I have have boggled at the power of the press release. A University of Illinois release somehow made the finding more "real" and sexy, and we've seen web coverage on CNN, Yahoo and dozens of other outlets. Maybe for TN readers the idea of virtual spaces being social is a "duh," but for the average person it still maintains both the quirky man-bites-dog appeal as well as true novelty. Like, wow, people communicate in these places. OK, now let's talk about why and whether it works.