Gaming as third place

The culture around social interaction is constantly changing, but the deeply awkward years of the pandemic have been particularly jarring. In the wake of such a weird cultural moment, I can’t help but wonder how the dust will settle, especially on how we meet, build friendships and relationships, and socialize. If you’re a gamer, answering those questions requires added complexity because we spend most of our time in the virtual world. I’m wondering where our favorite hobby fits into the equation.

Over the years, “Third Place” gave a name to an object that has become a part of our lives. If home is your first place and work is your second, the third place is the other social and gathering center of your life as part of the community. But especially in the wake of COVID, it is clear that many people have adjusted their relationships to social clubs, churches, coffee shops, bars and public gatherings. With so many individuals disconnected from some of those social spaces, there is a void that we all have yet to fill.

Into that void come the virtual spaces of our lives, whether they play out on social media or, if you’re reading this, in online games. Increasingly, games act as communities of their own, often matching or surpassing the thought and energy we put into other activities.

In fact, most of the power is playing those games – countless hours of Call of Duty or Fortnite matches, raiding in Destiny 2 or World of Warcraft, or socializing and joking around with friends on co-op runs in Helldivers 2 or Deep Rock Galactic. We pour our attention into these games and are rewarded with relaxation, a sense of discovery and a growing sense of mastery.

Helldivers 2

It’s also the conversations and expertise that arise around those games. We comb through subreddits and community forums to discuss strategy. We read websites (like this one) and magazines to better understand the games. We build friendships that last for years around shared adventures and discoveries in virtual space, further emerging on platforms like Discord. In these spaces, even single-player games feel like social hubs for interaction and engagement as we seek out others who share our passion for a particular character or franchise.

Despite my love of games and the friendships I’ve formed as I’ve played with others, I have to admit to some ambivalence. I treasure those late-night moments of triumph over the raid boss, but I miss meeting up with my friends in person. I’m excited about so many conversations about the game I love online, but I rarely feel like the connections I make there progress into true friendships.

There is no disparaging the connections and passion we all find in our gaming. But there is no doubt that we can get very good. Even with an endless selection of games to enjoy, we’ve all seen sobering articles where we learn that many within the same demographic of core gamers feel lonely and isolated. That’s not an obvious reason, but it gives cause for pause. If gaming is our new third place, is it serving all the purposes that the old social gathering places once did? Should we really expect them? That’s a heavy burden for someone’s hobby.

I posit that culture may have moved away from the concept of a single third place. Whether it’s individual games, shared virtual social spaces, or past traditional gathering spaces, humans are animals that seek connection and we create communities wherever we can. I don’t think we need to shy away from the interconnectedness that can arise from gaming, even if simultaneously seeking communication elsewhere. At the same time, while acknowledging my great love for games, I feel that they can be a trap that prevents me from forming other friendships and relationships. Like many things in life, it’s finding a middle ground — embracing new ways to connect virtually without forgetting the real-world options outside our doors.

This article originally appeared in issue 366 of Game Informer

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