One of the most omnipresent problems in the gaming community is… well, the lack of community.
Gaming is a notoriously solitary pastime. It’s most often done in the privacy of your own home, with maybe a small handful of friends, depending upon the kinds of games you play. The increasing prevalence of online gaming has helped to counter this but there’s still a powerful difference between socializing with other gamers in-person and doing so online. Besides: those who favor single-player games are out of luck, entirely.
Other hobbies have ways to meet people that share your interests, building your community and network of friends. Even movie theatres give you a nice spot to socialize with other movie buffs, even if that’s not their main purpose. No wonder a lot of gamers feel lonely, or like they have trouble socializing—it’s difficult to learn how to talk to people if you don’t do it, often.
In short: it sounds like the gaming community needs “third places.”
What are Third Places?
A “third place” is a sociological concept founded by Ray Oldenburg in his book The Great Good Place (1989). The name is wonderfully intuitive: if home is your “first place” and work is your “second place,” third places are where you go to relax in public, talk to old friends, and meet new ones. They’re where we find most of our social interaction and form connections with others. And, arguably, they play a bigger part in defining who we are than anything else. In fact, Oldenburg claimed that third places are crucial for civic engagement, democracy, civil society, and establishing a sense of place.
Formal and informal research both have backed up and amplified these claims. To quote the website City Journal in an August, 2020 article:
“Psychologically, happy times in third places can help instill Burkean attachments to one’s own home and community. At the societal level, third places build social capital in two ways. Regular patrons often develop strong bonds of familiarity, trust, and friendship, forming the foundation for mutual aid. Third places are also forums for introducing people of different occupations and backgrounds, thus expanding personal networks, disseminating new knowledge, and inspiring a sense of neighborhood unity.
A 2017 study that examined the social effects of village pubs in rural Ireland found that they provided a significant social forum. In bustling cities like New York, third places serve as both oases of leisure and hubs of activity, providing a source of ‘eyes on the street’ that improve public safety. Third places help glue together strong communities, enabling human flourishing though social and civic engagement.”
Third places come in any number of forms: coffee shops and bookstores are a well-known example, as are everything from churches and YMCAs to block parties and bars. Many of these third places have a specific common ground that binds everyone there together, from the inviting family to a beloved sport.
Third Places for Gamers
Gaming, then, seems to be in a rough spot.
Back in the day, we had some third places, mostly in the form of arcades. Those of you who grew up on either Dance Dance Revolution or fighting games probably remember them well. Hell, some of the communities that originated in arcades are still going strong. But, arcades have sharply declined. They hit their peak at 13,000 arcades in North America in 1982. Today, there’s only 4,000. Besides: gaming wasn’t as evolved a hobby back then and it was much harder to find the artistic and storytelling masterpieces (and conversation topics) that mark the format, today.
Video game stores were the next candidate for gaming third places. GameStop is the most well-known of these, but sales have been sharply declining. The April-June 2020 economic quarter saw a drop of 26.7%, and local game stores aren’t faring much better… though part of that was because of big stores like GameStop. Besides; many shops were small, and felt more like niche markets to buy old, hard-to-find games than places to socialize.
The Future of Gaming Third Places
Now, we’re seeing the rise of “gaming cafes.” These are places like Balance Patch in Boston, Massachusetts. They offer gaming booths, PC’s and consoles pre-fitted with a bunch of titles, VR stations, and couches that I would probably spend most of my time in getting bodied in Blazblue or Street Fighter 5.
Out of everything on this list, these are the closest to being “true” third places.
Cafes like Balance Patch allow gamers to get together, buy snacks and coffee, play video games and watch eSports together… in other words, to just hang out surrounded by a common interest.
These cafes are hard to come across. As it stands, you’ll only find them in big cities, which entrenches the already-present problems of socialization many gamers face in smaller towns and rural areas.
But, they aren’t the only option. Similar possibilities are myriad. GameStop, for instance, could leverage their real estate, scale back physical sales, and morph their focus into becoming a chain of smaller gaming cafes where systems are set up and maintained, players can access online profiles and try new games (which GameStop could sell), and meet with fans of the genre. In fact, a company of that size could establish user profiles for frequent customers that would carry from one location to the next, and utilize their reach to organize local and online tournaments across a wide swath of games, or just craft lists where people can put their name down for coop or team gaming.
Even sites like Balance Patch could strengthen their presence as third places by including swaths of the store that are strictly for “hanging out.” No consoles, just couches and a table or a bar, so that people can sit down and chat.
You may be wondering why I’m pushing so hard for this. The fact is that gaming has a dichotomy I’ve always found distressing. It doesn’t lend itself well to the deep kind of socialization that Oldenburg associates with third places, and yet it really is the artistic and popular medium of our era. It’s as revolutionary as film and radio ever were, and even now, its true potential as a format has yet to be reached.
You’ll find that most every artistic medium, in order to blossom, required the presence of third places that gathered the greatest (or soon-to-be-greatest) minds together and gave them a place to talk about their theories and projects. Fans became hobbyists and theorists, hobbyists and theorists became practitioners, practitioners became professionals, and professionals became masters that made the craft what it is, now.
Gaming is already in a strong place, in the grand scheme of things. And if we can establish a powerful network of third places, I think that’ll be exactly what it needs to go from a popular medium, to the place people go for artistic masterpieces.