Synthetic worlds – third places?

In the previous post, I described synthetic worlds as generative. From this, we understand that they offer a more open-ended experience than computer games. This suggests that their primary function is social. Indeed, Oldenburg’s concept of a ‘third place’ where “individuals gather to socialize informally beyond the workplace [second place] and home [first place]” (1999) may help in defining synthetic worlds. Oldenburg outlines eight characteristics of ‘third places.’ I will look at each of these in detail and discuss how it applies to synthetic worlds (SW).

Characteristic In what ways is this characteristic true of a SW?
Neutral ground Users can come and go as they please.The anonymity of avatars allows people to engage with minimal involvement. 
Leveler The avatars’ users rank and status in the workplace or society is not of importance. Avatars may choose a status unconnected to their physical-world status.There are not normally prerequisites to join virtual worlds (NB some have age requirements e.g. WeeWorld ages 13+, Second Life 18+)
Conversation is the main activity There are many different conversation channels in SWs e.g. group audio chat, group text chat, private text chat. Conversation is possible despite language barriers e.g. via translating tools.
Accessibility and accommodation SWs are persistent and thus perpetually accessible. However, barriers exist e.g. users need computer access, computer literacy skills
The regulars (attract newcomers and give the space its characteristic mood) The social aspect of interaction in SWs is what attracts many avatars to return. Also, the communication is synchronous: if one player changes something in the world the other avatars will see this. Avatars, therefore, fill the world with meaning.
A low profile SWs do not fit this characteristic in the literary sense. They are far from being ordinary,
Playful mood Playful quality to SWs e.g. avatars’ gestures, terminology e.g. ‘sandboxes’ rather than building sites
A home away from home Users organise their own comings and goings in and from the SW.


As we can see from the above table, synthetic worlds meet nearly all of Oldenburg’s characteristics of a ‘third place’ apart from that of a low profile. They are free or inexpensive, are easily accessible, are proximate for many of the users to their first or second places (arguably even more so than other common third places such as cafes or bars which may involve walking from ones home or workplace), involve regular users and are welcoming. Synthetic worlds, thus, can be seen as social worlds, separate from the social environments of home and the workplace. They can be considered as meeting places which foster creative interaction and where people or their avatars can establish and feel a sense of place (telepresence) through socialising. Indeed, in a survey by Parks Associates, 29% of respondents gave their top reason for visiting a synthetic world as being “to escape real life.” Thus, it appears important that the social aspect of synthetic worlds feature in the definition I will choose to adopt for my research.

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