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Computers in Human Behavior 53 (2015) 527535

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Computers in Human Behavior

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Bridging the online/ofine divide: The example of digital gaming

Lina Eklund
Department of Sociology, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden

a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t

Article history: Studies of virtual worlds are often based on the dichotomous real world/virtual world, yet research has
Received 8 October 2013 indicated that this division is far from unproblematic. The aim of this study is to examine empirically the
Revised 18 March 2014 link between online/ofine using the example of social online gaming. The data consist of individual and
Accepted 16 June 2014
group interviews with 33 adult gamers. The results explore three themessociability and design; group
Available online 10 July 2014
membership; norms and rulesand show how on-and ofine are inexorably linked through the social
organizational demands of Internet gaming. Individuals ground online group membership in ofine rela-
tions and shared characteristics, aiming to maximize game-play gains and support sociability. Gaming
with people like us facilitates creation of norms and expectations, which aids in producing stable social
Cooperation groups. Thus the boundary between online and ofine becomes contingent on links between people. The
Competition study shows how important ofine connections are for online interaction.
Norms 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction spheres disconnected from ofine life. In a recent review of empir-

ical research concerned with community in online gaming
Contemporary life is increasingly interlaced with digital tech- (Warmelink & Siitonen, 2011), no connection between online and
nology (Castells, 2001) and leisure activities are one important ofine was prevalent so far in the literature. Lehdonvirta (2010)
arena that have seen a digitalization. Leisure is a signicant part argues that especially MMO (massive multiplayer online games)
of peoples lives and what activities are available, participated in, studies have been based on the dichotomous real world/virtual
and valued at any specic time and place is shaped by current cul- world. The aim of this study is therefore to empirically examine
ture (Kelly, 1983). Activities engaged in as leisure, such as games, the link between online and ofine in social Internet based gaming
hobbies, simply talking and so on, are increasingly embedded in in order to ground this theoretical development in empirical data.
digital technology, and as these activities go digital, they break The research question asks: How is online and ofine linked through
away from earlier restrictions that limited them to certain times MMO gaming? The study sets out to answer this through interviews
and spaces. Online and ofine are terms often used when the with 33 Swedish informants that together have a wide range of
aim is to distinguish between types of activities utilizing different experiences from a multitude of different massive multiplayer
technologies with different social implications and meanings. Early online games. The aim is not to offer a generalizable picture, but
Internet and digital games research pointed at the liberating to show how using an approach that attempts to connect rather
aspects of online lifehow we in online social spaces could free than separate online and ofine can benet our knowledge and
ourselves from the constraints in our physical lives. Since then, understanding of online social life. Focus is on analysing the nature
research has increasingly come to show how the Internet is not of social experiences and preferences and through this reach ana-
creating new social patterns but rather is an extension of our lytical clarity on the relationship between online and ofine. The
selves (Castells, 2001). Researchers have argued that we cannot results explore three themes; (1) sociability and design; (2) group
understand sociality online unless we connect both online and off- membership; (3) norms and rules. The study touches on some clas-
line (Williams, 2006) and that virtuality is a social property rather sic phenomena in studies of online life, but does so while bridging
than an inherent quality of online social life (Slater, 2002). How- the online/ofine divide in order to reach new understanding
ever, often the study of online social worlds, such as digital games, about digital social life.
has not fully realized this development. There is a practice of sep-
arating ofine and online and treating online worlds as social 1.1. Why Sweden?

Tel.: +46 8 16 20 02. Sweden is often considered a forerunner with regard to digital
E-mail address: media. According to survey data, almost 90% of Swedes (18+) have
0747-5632/ 2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
528 L. Eklund / Computers in Human Behavior 53 (2015) 527535

access to the Internet and digital gaming is widespread with 62.5% nurture the same social relations as ofine. People now build their
of Swedes aged 1265 engaged (Findahl, 2011). Sweden rates social network based on their interests, values, and projects both
among the top countries in E-sports and hosts the worlds largest on- and off-line (ibid.). Slater (2002) notes that new forms of medi-
local area network festival, Dreamhack, with over 20,000 visitors ation in general have been experienced as virtual because at the
in 2011. The Swedish context of extensive use therefore offers a time they seemed to be replacing earlier forms of interaction that
suitable ground for the study. were seen as real. As Morley (2003) suggests, communicative
actions must be contextualized; they are social practices among
other social practices, of which online gaming is one. Therefore,
2. Background the study at hand argues that when studying social interaction
and digital technology we need to pay more attention to social cir-
2.1. Understanding the relationship between online/ofine cumstances if we are to understand how social situations are cre-
ated, and their meaning. This understanding of ofine/online is
The Internet and other digital technologies have changed our present today in Internet research (see e.g. Benkler, 2006) and is
access to information, and the Internets capabilities for person to furthermore seen in how Internet users make sense of their experi-
person connectivity have deeply impacted many aspects of life. ences (Eklund, 2012). We need to connect online and ofine and
The effect of the Internet on social interaction and relationships study effects and inuences in both areas at the same time, as they
is a complex issue, yet the very practices through which people are linked in everyday life (Williams, 2006). Following this theoret-
interact with each other is one of the main agendas both for previ- ical development we can see virtuality not as something inherent in
ous and future research on New Media and the Internet (Lievrouw, digital games, but rather as relational, a social accomplishment of
2011), and Game Studies is an important part of New Media stud- people engaging with games. As Slater (2002) has argued in relation
ies (Aslinger & Huntermann, 2013). The Internet is an integral part to the Internet, virtuality is not a property owned by digital technol-
of digital gaming; gamers not only play games online, but also ogy. In other words, this study shows that virtuality is created
search for game information and connect with other gamers. Social between people engaging in games online. Depending on what
interaction is a signicant part of massive multiplayer online we do and who we do it with, the virtual properties and meaning
(MMO) gaming as the game-play demands group effort to com- of digital technologies will be different; virtuality is situational.
plete game goals; gamers collaborate, compete, and interact with
each other. Playing a MMO game allows gamers to immerse in a 2.2. MMOs as social worlds
social world together. Doing so they need to create and maintain
relationships to manage their gaming and abide by and construct In online games, as indeed most other games, game rules are
norms and rules that help make up the interactional space. one of the building blocks together with narrative or ctional
Stenros, Paavilainen, and Myr (2011) emphasise both social talk worlds which give meaning to the rules (Juul, 2005). The rules
and social game-play as important for understanding digital gam- determine the structure of the game, while the narrative interprets
ing; gamers not only play together, they also engage in sociability. the rules for us and has a strong impact on the game experience
Sociability, as in Simmels (1949 [1910]) original meaning, is here (Begy & Consalvo, 2011). Rules are constantly negotiated and chan-
dened as the idle talk gamers can engage in and around gaming, ged, especially in online games where updates and patches regu-
interaction for the pleasure of it, void of meaning and purpose; the larly adjust rules that do not work, while gamers appropriate and
talk which makes up so much of our pleasurable interaction when invent new rules. As Consalvo (2009: 416) expresses it: Of course
we relax and enjoy ourselves. [game rules] apply, but in addition to, in competition with, other rules
In the debate concerning digital technologies few issues have and in relation to multiple contexts, across varying cultures, and into
been as prominent as social relationships and the division between different groups, legal situations, and homes. Game rules are impor-
online and ofine. The debate often focuses on the argument that tant for the experience of the game, yet they work in combination
ofine is the same as real life and that online is virtual and there- with or in addition to rules and norms of everyday life which
fore less real. Much research has focused on the virtual aspects of gamers bring with them online. Searle (1969) divided game rules
online life and earlyand laterNew Media studies often spoke of into the constitutive and the regulative. Constitutive rules are
virtual worlds disconnected from ofine structures and the uidity those that not only regulate but create the very possibility of
of identity that these spaces afforded due to the separation from engaging in a gamethe game rules. Constitutive rules create
the physical (e.g. Filiciak, 2003; Gotved, 2006; Turkle, 1997). In meaning; by allowing certain things they create institutional facts,
studies on digital gaming the dominant tradition has been to sep- in this case the mathematical rules allowed by the games code.
arate the virtual from the physical; that is, to view digital games as Regulative rules regulate an activity that already exists by stating
purely digital spaces with no connection to ofine place. This sep- what is allowed/disallowed (Searle, 1969: 3341). This can be sta-
aration often takes a specied form, such as magic circle, cyber- ted in the user agreement that many MMOs make gamers sign, but
space, virtual reality, and liminality (Crawford, 2012). In these also in the norms and rules gamers create to govern their social
descriptions of digital games the outside world is often ignored interaction. Salen and Zimmerman (2004: 140150) use a some-
or only briey acknowledged and games are seen as separate what similar denition of constitutive rules as the core rules of a
spaces in their own right or as ludic spaces (Adams, 2003). Here game, in contrast to the implicit unwritten rules. Social gaming
only the rules of the game apply and outside limitations and hier- encounters are made possible by the constitutive rules, those pro-
archies such as nationality, class, or gender are ignored. In general grammed fundaments of the game in question, otherwise there
there is a tendency in studies of digital technologies to overempha- would be no game in which to interact. Regulative rules are the
size the separation of the virtual from the material (Williams, norms and rules of conduct that gamers engaged in gaming
2006) as well as the deterritorialisation process of these technolo- together create and uphold. The game, as a whole, comes to be
gies (Morley, 2011), where geography is seen as irrelevant, since as it is interacted with, in the relationship between gamer, game
time and space have separated in contemporary social life. Central companions, and game (see e.g. Consalvo, 2009).
to this division is the issue of sociality and whether these technol- Instead of seeing MMOs as virtual worlds we can see them as
ogies limit or enhance users social lives (Williams, 2006). social worlds. The term comes from the sociologist Anselm Strauss
Castells (2001) has argued that online life is not a space of its (e.g. 1978) and has been suggested by Lehdonvirta (2010) as
own, but an extension of our social networks where we can applicable to MMO studies. A social world according to Strauss is
L. Eklund / Computers in Human Behavior 53 (2015) 527535 529

a universe of discourse (1978: 121). They are arenas featuring interview (ages 17 and 49). The call for informants asked for indi-
some kind of organization and as such, members share some activ- viduals who played digital games. After some information about
ity or other. In each social world at least one primary activity (along the research project, interested parties were informed that the
with related clusters of activity) is strikingly evident (Strauss, 1978: interviews would deal with digital gaming and social interaction.
236). In an MMO this activity would be gaming, the primary activ- All informants are self-identied as someone who games. For more
ity of individuals engaged in a game, but at the same time this is by detail about the method see Eklund (2012).
far the only activity that gamers engage in. Socializing, irting, and All the interviews followed a similar setup; the same themes and
making money are a few other activities engaged in while connect- questions were asked regardless of interview type. In all the inter-
ing to the social world of an MMO. views broad and open questions about digital gaming were asked in
In this perspective, social reality is constructed of a vast number the style of in-depth or open structure interviewing (Hayes, 2000).
of social worlds that can be small or large, and an individual may In conjunction with all the interviewsgroup, pair and individual
belong in several at the same time. Lehdonvirta (2010) argues that a short questionnaire was handed out to gather additional informa-
to see an MMO as a social world allows us to see these games as tion and ask about gaming habits, as an extended focus group or
belonging in the same category as Londons world of nance or interview (Berg, 2009). The questionnaire gave an opportunity to
the Judo world. For an MMO gamer, the role of the game in their access background information in an unobtrusive way that saved
life might be compared to, for example, their work world. The time for all participants during the interviews. These were after-
social worlds an individual is engaged in may overlap and involve wards used to compare how much time people spent on gaming
some of the same people, locations, technologies, and so on. In this and which games they engaged in. Interviews were recorded and
perspective, playing digital games makes gamers part of the social transcribed in full; all quotes are translated by the author.
world of gaming, in turn constructed of several sub-worlds, such as
that of one specic MMO game. For a gamer this MMO world can in 4. Results
turn intersect with other worlds, as the gamer perhaps is playing
with friends from school or siblings. Social worlds overlap, exist Of the informants almost half are women and half men; ages span
within each other and so affect one another. Using a social world from 17 to 49 years old (median 25). As many men as women had
perspective allows us to escape the dichotomy of virtual and real, experiences from MMOs, although all played games with others
and uncouple technological platforms from users and re-embed online. Only two informants, a man and a woman, did not game reg-
MMOs into the rest of society (Lehdonvirta, 2010). ularly at the time of the interview. Both used to spend more time on
Digital game worlds are social spaces that do not coincide with games in the recent past but new responsibilities currently made it
physical place, yet they are inexorably linked through the people difcult for them to nd time. In Table 1, data from the short ques-
using and making these spaces. In this sense, online social spaces tionnaire is presented with some background to the sample group.
are not disconnected from the physical; we cannot leave our meat The informants engage or had engaged in a vast array of digital
behind as in William Gibsons novel Neuromancer (1984) where he games including many MMOs such as Ultima Online (Origin
coined the term Cyberspace, subsequently used by New Media systems, 1997), Utopia (, 1998), Star Wars Galaxies
researchers. We can game with people not located in the same (Sony, 2003), Guild Wars (ArenaNet, 2003), World of Warcaft
place as ourselves and we can engage in asynchronous (non-simul- (Blizzard, 2004, henceforth WoW), and Lord of the Rings Online
taneous) gaming, yet gamers occupy the same social world and (Turbine Inc., 2007). All the informants combined different genres
social worlds intersect and link into each other. of games and themselves put emphasis on digital games as social
facilitators, giving a context for friendships to form, whilst adding
3. Methodology continuity to relationships with family and friends, both close by
and geographically separated.
This study explores social online gaming with focus on adult
Man (20): [Gaming] is a hobby and something social.
gamersa previously less investigated group (Thornham, 2009).
Interviews have been suggested by Strauss as a suitable method None of the informants only gamed alone, although a few did
when researching social worlds (Strauss, 1978). A phenomenology not foremost see themselves as social gamers. It is possible that
inspired approach has been used (see Aspers, 2001). In line with the theme of the groups, social gaming, might have deterred lone
this the results presented have been reached inductively, allowing gamers. On the other hand, gaming with others or gaming online
the data to represent the informants own experienced reality, was not expressed as a requirement for participation.
while the discussion has evolved deductively. The thematic quali-
Table 1
tative analysis (Boyatzis, 1998) has thus been grounded in theory
Description of research sample, number of informants.
and previous research. While rst structuring the results, the the-
ory used to guide the study was put in brackets to allow an under- Background data Women Men
standing of the rst order of construction from the informants Women total 16
lived experience (Aspers, 2001). However, in the presentation here, Men total 17
both rst and second orders of construction are intertwined. How often do you game?
The data consist of focus group interviews, pair interviews, and Almost every day 5 11
individual interviews carried out in Sweden in 20092011. A com- One or more times per week 10 5
Seldom 1 1
parative sampling method was used, since interviewing several
groups (men, women, older/young adults, couples, parents and Length of normal game session
01 h 0 0
adult children) offers more detailed insight. While the sample aims 12 h 9 4
at capturing a broad selection of gamers, the purpose is not to gen- 34 h 6 8
eralize the results but rather to give insight into the subject at 5+h 1 5
hand. A total of 33 participants were interviewed (more informa- Who do you game with?
tion about the informants is presented under Results). The sample Friends/family in person 14 13
came from (1) a Sixth Form (ages 1720) in an upper secondary Friends/family over Internet 7 13
Strangers online 10 11
school in the Stockholm area; (2) Stockholm University (ages of
MMO experience 13 13
informants 2439), and (3) the project website, yielding one pair
530 L. Eklund / Computers in Human Behavior 53 (2015) 527535

The following paragraphs explore the online/ofine connection Another example encountered in this study that shows how
from three interconnected angles dealing with social gaming. The performing game actions are connected to sociability is how level-
sections build upon each other, previous ones leading to the next. ling in World of Warcraft is structured by game design. When
grouping to level up, experience received for killing monsters is
4.1. Sociability and design of online game spaces shared between group members, thus signicantly reducing poten-
tial measurable gain from this activity. Gamers lament that for ef-
Researcher: So whats special about [online] games then? cient play you have to sacrice sociability as grouping is actually
penalized. However, the gamers studied here are all experienced
Man (28): Its this, you can do something together. Its not just players; it would not be the same for new players who might group
talking. anyway for support and learning. Still, the design does not promote
MMO gaming and online gaming in general allows gamers to not grouping even if the lore and narrative of WoW might. We see how
only share a social world, but also to perform game actions together, MMOs by their very nature promote rational and goal striving
completing challenges and competing with other gamers. The infor- behaviour (Grimes & Feenberg, 2009), and leaving support and
mants argue that gaming offers something to do while spending reward for sociability in the hands of gamers seems to not ade-
time together with others, either collaborating or competing. The quately full the preference for sociability. As previous research
gamer in the quote continues saying that while completing in-game has shown (Eklund & Johansson, 2013), gamers striving to maxi-
challenges you talk more with your game companionsand not nec- mise the outcome of their game-play will sacrice sociability if
essarily about the gamethan if you do different things in the game. there is no supporting game structure for it. This is in line with
The designed challenges that games are allow gamers to interact the socializing through grouping and rewards criteria for design-
with others and at the same time this purposeful interaction creates ing for sociability that Christou et al. (2013) put forward. The
a platform supporting sociability, the talk for talk itself. While all design needs to offer rewards for sociable behaviour. In the follow-
games afford this, online gaming supports CMC (computer mediated ing quote a mother and daughter who play together as a way of
communication) allowing gamers practical, facilitated interaction sharing their everyday lives talk about how they often do daily
with friends and family; so called signicant others. repeatable quests together in WoW.

Man (25): Its a great advantage with online games that its so easy Woman (49): Mostly its just us two
to meet your friends; its not like you have to go home to each other
if you want to play. Woman (17): It goes twice as fast if you are two and like its not as
As can be seen in this quote, digital gaming plays the role of a In this example collaboration is rewarded and the gamers are at
social leisure activity that affords both social interaction while the highest level so the reduced experience does not matter, offer-
gaming as well as a space for sociability; as in the quote, you can ing empirical support for the need of game rewards for sociable
both meet and play with friends. This is of course the very behaviour. In one sense this mother and daughter play together
essence of online gaming. As argued in earlier literature, MMOs because it allows them to spend time together, as valuable leisure,
are communities, third places where the dominating rationale is yet concurrently the game rewards their grouping and this mat-
sociability, the talk for talks own sake (Ducheneaut, Moore, & ters. Collaboration is not only important for their engagement in
Nickell 2007; Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006). Yet, while sociability the game; it also makes gaming easier and faster. In this way
truly is in the nature of MMOs, it is the collaborative action that game-play gain is maximised at the same time as they spend time
allows the social interaction a focus and the creation of this partic- together. For the informants, performing in-game tasks supports
ular social world. Gamers are thus often linked by instrumental sociability, offering a joint focus for interaction and facilitating idle
ties, quite contrary to the idea of community as consisting of talk as they are focused on the same task. It also highlights how
strong, stable social bonds between members (Yuan, 2012). How- people are drawn to play with family and friends they know ofine,
ever, Feld (1981) has argued that social interaction typically is mixing several social worlds; something further explored in the
focused, centred around something, for example a joint activity, next paragraphs.
and this activity is often necessary to sustain the social interaction. The informants perceive games as a social leisure activity. Dig-
Gaming with others allows the social interaction a focus and a ital gamesby their social designallow both playing the game
shared sense of understanding, as it is shaped not only around an and hanging out in an everyday context; users do something
interest but around shared experiences. together and share a social world. The informants play from
The combination of performing actions which in turn support home with family members, with family and friends located else-
sociability is in no way unproblematic or uncontested, however. where or with strangers online. Joint experiences and a mutual
Man (24): Yeah sure you can chat a lot [in WoW], but is it really as hobby build a sense of belonging together. Yet, the games can,
social as to be able to interact with other gamers all the time like in through their design, both hinder and be unsupportive of socia-
Star Wars Galaxies for example? I dont know, but I dont feel that bility by reducing the opportunityor necessityfor social
social when Im just standing on a roof chatting. collaboration.

This informant, together with two other gamers, goes on to talk 4.2. Homophily in group memberships
about how you had to actually meet other gamers avatars and per-
form joint actions in Star Wars Galaxies (SWG)performing collab- Man (34): I only play online games with friends or my brothers, its
orative actions, not simply occupying the same social space. In not like I look for others. I know I have them to play with and I like
SWG you had to constantly meet other gamers to learn skills, to hang out with them in the real world and [online] as well.
regain resources, and trade. This, these men argue, left you feeling
more connected to others. Only sharing the same social-space is While online gaming affords social play as well as a space for
not enough for these informants. To promote sociability through sociability, as we saw in the previous section, this does not mean
design gamers must be able to do something, achieve goals, while that gamers are social with just anyone; as expressed in this quote.
engaging in sociability. The joint action promotes afnity and helps As a social leisure activity gaming is particularly valued for its abil-
build closeness. ity to support joint activity with friends and family; mixing social
L. Eklund / Computers in Human Behavior 53 (2015) 527535 531

worlds. A group of friends and partners gaming together argue that end up in guilds lled with people similar to themselves.
without their MMO-gaming, now WoW and previously Lineage Moreover, this was not related to any particular gaming focus in
(NCsoft, 1998), they would not have become and remained friends, the respective guilds; it was true for elite top-ranked guilds and
even though they originally met through contexts unconnected to more casual oriented ones. Even when gaming online, in a space
gaming. where all participants could be considered to be sharing a purpose
and an interest, these tendencies towards homophily are clear, that
Woman (26): I dont think we would be sitting here today without
is, people are more likely to be found together with other people
World of Warcraft
who are like themselves (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Cook 2001).
Woman (22): No, I dont think so either Ofine physical characteristics matter; even in this digitally medi-
ated environment, the informants engage in games with people in
Man (27): Probably not. the same ofine life situation as themselves; people who can relate
This group lives within walking distance of each other and reg- to their everyday life and the limitations and possibilities therein.
ularly meet in person. Yet the game offers the group something to It is not enough to be gamers with a shared interest and purpose;
gather around and have as a common focus for their interaction. furthermore, it is not enough to play the same game. This shows
Even though the social space is online and could be accessed from that gaming culture is becoming diverse enough to support this
anywhere, it has a clear connection to this groups ofine social fragmentation and moreover how important gamers feel that sim-
world. They explain that while they used to play with people from ilarities are for sociability.
a nearby town it did not work out; the relationships felt too dif- Man (39): In the guild, we are several parents. . .
cult to uphold due to the physical distance. Even though they
shared the same online space, the ofine location of the people Woman (36): Its almost only parents in it so everyone understands
was more important. This illustrates a common thread in the data, when you are in a dungeon or something and wait he yells. . .
how important geography is for the social relationships users
engage in online. Man (39): . . .someones child screams and then you wait and you
This wife and husband gaming together were both part of a can relate to it because we have been in that situation.
guildformal or informal gamer groupings also known as clans, While the tendency to homophily is indeed important for talk to
fellowships, et ceterawith guild members they had never met in run more freely it is also, as in this example, more than only a pref-
person, yet, here they talk a lot with a couple from a nearby town. erence for similarity to support sociability. It is, furthermore, easier
Woman (36): A couple who play live in [town]. And if you live in to build successful gaming groups and relationships with individu-
[town] then you see the person behind the characters and suddenly als sharing some common ofine ground; here the social world of
you arent alone, you are with two others that we could visit if we parenting. For practical reasons, as in this example, game-play
took the car, and we talk, we talk quite a lot with them in the game organisation is facilitated by real life similarities. So while gaming
as well, and we dont only talk about the game, we talk about our as previous research has shown can be a focus for activity, creating
children too. and supporting sociability and relationships, this study shows that
it is not enough to play together. A MMO game puts people
The important part for them is that they could visit this couple together and gives them a shared purpose, offering the structural
living close by in the physical world, even if they have not. When foundation for relationships, yet this is not enough for successful
talk is not limited to the online situation and the ofine is brought or valuable social organisation, something explored more fully in
online social interaction takes on a more real sense. Grounding the next section.
social interaction in ofine activities was described by informants
as part of fun and valuable leisure, talking beyond the activity at 4.3. The stranger dilemma
hand; closeness ofine leading to closeness online. It also shows
the relativity and uidity of virtuality, what is considered to be While discussing online gaming the informants of this study
similarities between people varies. herald the classic bridging relationships and borderless social
Joining a guild or a clan was considered mandatory for any suc- interaction we often see highlighted in online interaction in gen-
cessful and enjoyable online gaming. Especially for collaborative eral. Speaking warmly about the opportunities to encounter people
gaming tasks but very often also for competition, which in many in game spaces from all over the world, they gladly recount anec-
games is team based. Choosing which guild to join was a process dotes about these encounters.
often determined by happenstance and trial and error; sometimes Man (17): When gaming with people from all over Europe you
by actively searching, sometimes by creating a guild of ones own. come together. You understand some of what they think is fun. Like
However, in the following examples the informants have all ended when you game with Englishmen and their guilds then, like, every
up in guilds with people whom either they already know or with second hour its teatime.
whom they feel afnity to in some sense.
Man (24): Youre in the same life, like same part of life. So it pulls These online contacts are often shallow and seldom evolve
people together as well. I mean, if I should play with some 16 year beyond acquaintanceship, as in the example above. That the Eng-
olds that would not be so fun . . . you dont have that much in com- lish like their tea might seem slightly exotic to this Swede, but does
mon with them. Even if you play WoW you dont have that much to not necessitate any in-depth cultural sharing. Informants put
talk about. Besides WoW that is. emphasis on this techno-utopian ideology, promoting the idea of
online interaction as free of materiality and boundaries between
The guild that this young man is part of consists mostly of other people, yet, these properties are seldom realised in their concrete
men still in school and so does not seem to have anything in com- practises. For example, when engaging in competitive online gam-
mon with the family centred, older guild mentioned in the previ- ing, not limited to MMOs, informants compete against strangers.
ous quote. However, in both cases the informants guild However, this was not considered social gaming but relaxing
members are in the same life stage as themselves. Guild member- gaming; more fun than competing against the computer. One pop-
ship in this study is structured around factors such as age and ular competitive game is Starcraft, (Blizzard and MMIE, 1998) a
occupation. This was not a conscious choice; rather, the informants real-time strategy game focused on competition. Those informants
532 L. Eklund / Computers in Human Behavior 53 (2015) 527535

playing this game explained that while competing friends are Two other informants, a couple, created their own guild, where
preferred yet not always worth the time and effort it takes to orga- they have worked hard to create a strong sense of belonging. They
nize. Social interaction is better, and nicer, with friends. Yet, as explain how they have worked on supporting a pleasant social
these games are played in short bursts gathering your friends space, even though their guild is highly competitive and one of
sometimes take too much time. Additionally, the high paced the top ranked guilds on their server.
matches allow for very little sociability. One gamer explained that
Woman (29): I feel very safe in this guild, like you can ask questions
because of this, when possible, it was preferable to play these types
and feel you get support and that you can be social, get to know
of games at Internet cafs, where you can play against each other
people, not just talk to a lot of people you dont know who they are.
and talk in real life to make up for lost social interaction in the
intense game sessions.
In MMOs on the other hand strangers are largely avoided. This guild is limited to Swedish language speakers. This is to
avoid culture clashes and ensure that everyone gets along.
Woman (24): You get group quests and then you say, No! I have to
nd a bloody pick-up-group so I can do this and then people dont Researcher: Is there a special reason why you want a Swedish
show up or leave or do strange things and it only becomes difcult. guild?

All of the informants preferred to game online with friends and

family rather than with strangers, as they argue that you never Woman (29): Its so well be able to communicate freely with each
know what to expect from persons one is not acquainted with in other and so that everyone will understand; thats how I feel.
terms of social interaction. Gaming with strangers is mostly per- Man (29): Yes, even though everyone speaks English I feel that in
ceived as problematic. several guilds I have been part of there have been cultural conicts.
Man (25): You cant, like, sanction people who break the under- People express themselves differently depending on if they are Brits
standings that exist [in online games]; you cant punish people. or Greeks, you like, notice culture.
A certain cultural understanding is clearly outlined by the
Woman (24): Well you can kick people if you are in a group, but
shared use of language, which works against any homogenization
then you stand there without a healer and then its a bitch, but
of culture in online relations. It is not in-game norms about behav-
iour but the shared ofine characteristics of the group members
To understand why family and friends or strangers who are sim- that ensure this social climate, according to the informants. As in
ply similar to us mediate this online effect we have to turn to how the previous example, where parenthood was another such simi-
MMO life is structured. In the above example the informants touch larity, sharing game style or online space is not enough to create
on a well-known problem, the difculty of norm sanctioning in an stable social groups and additional ofine characteristics are felt
online space. In conicts between gaming companions, the impor- to be necessary for achieving social cohesion online. In other
tance of stable norm structures and the possibility for enforcement words, interlacing different social worlds. These common cultural
comes to the fore. The relationship between constitutive and regula- boundaries help to support a social norm structure aiding collabo-
tive rules (Searle, 1969) is of use here. While interacting with strang- ration between people who do not share an ofine social space. The
ers, norms about appropriate behaviour are embedded in (1) design more similarities on both a macro level, such as country of origin or
as constitutive rules and/or (2) in the social environmenthere the language, and micro level, such as age and life-stage, the easier col-
game communityin the form of norms and regulative rules. Consti- laboration is perceived to be. So not only is the opportunity for
tutive rules can never be all encompassing or cover every possible sociability increased, people have more to talk about; instrumental
situation, which necessitates regulative rules. It is known that online aspects of goal attainment is also beneted by homophily.
interaction can be highly problematic, as it is difcult to perform
social sanctions in an online space when rules or social etiquette 5. Discussion
are broken, mostly due to anonymity. However, in this study we
see how gamers alleviate this problem by making sure regulative The results show, in line with previous research (Stenros et al.,
rules are grounded ofine, thereby making them stronger online. 2011), that the attraction of MMOs lies both in the opportunity to
When gaming with friends and family the social norm structure is engage in collaborative action and the support for sociability that
moreover embedded in ofine social relationships; the closer the this joint action provides. The results also show that for games to
relationship tie, the more regulative rules can play a part. support sociability gamers need to play together, not only occupy
Man (32): So you can have fun with people you dont know, but I the same game-space, and the game also needs to reward social
mean, the more you know people the easier it is to get people to behaviour. The rational, reward seeking behaviour MMO games
understand what you are saying; easier to play with. encourage can, in the case of contradictory design, discourage
sociability and both sociability and afnity is felt by the gamers
As we see here this social structuring is not only about sociabil- to be necessary for enjoyable and successful gaming. Not that
ity, enjoying time together, but also about a more goal oriented engaging with strangers was not enjoyed on occasions; it was sim-
focus and this is not limited to guilds that especially invested in ply of less consequence for gaming as a leisure activity. Further-
progress or more easy-going groups. As in the above example, more, the results show that gamers create and join guilds made
the better you know the ones you interact with, the easier it is to up of people similar to themselves in ofine lifesame age, at
make sure that play runs smoothly and with the most gain. The the same stage in life, or speaking the same language, to mention
selection of guild members based on ofine similarities and con- some demographic factors. There are two reasons for this, rst in
nections facilitates collaboration and furthermore increases the support of sociability; similar people are easier to talk to as you
chances of measurable success in the game. In short, it seems that have more in common with them. Secondly, collaboration was eas-
the importance of ofine connections for the creation and sanc- ier with similarly minded individuals. This presents a dilemma
tioning of norms has been overlooked in previous research. Under- where MMO game worlds are promoted as made up of strangers;
standing each other, keeping the same time schedule, and valuing thousands of people to game with, yet gamers prefer to play with
the same things outside the online world are also factors that inu- people occupying the same ofine social worlds, thereby seem-
ence this social ordering. ingly contradicting the basic affordances of the Internet.
L. Eklund / Computers in Human Behavior 53 (2015) 527535 533

Digital communication is often presented as breaking certain often stratify themselves into social groups based on resemblance
earlier restrictions of time and space and reducing the importance to each other, also called homophily, is nothing new. Social psy-
of geography. Online, users have the potential to interact with peo- chology has suggested that individuals want to compare them-
ple from all over the world. More recently, however, it has been selves to similar people for increased self-fullment in life
argued that too much has been made of these deterritorialisation (Festinger, 1954). The interesting conclusion here is rather how
processes and that the disappearance of place is exaggerated. different levels of similarities work in online social worlds, which
Online spaces are linked to ofine everyday life in many ways by their very structure have been suggested as disconnected from
and different media contain different affordances to uphold/dis- these characteristics. That we can observe this pattern inciden-
solve these borders, as Christensen, Jansson, and Christensen tally show us that the gaming community is large and varied
(2011) have put forward. After all, digital game spaces are always enough to support this. The results here also indicate that gaming
accessed from a physical location. With these results we can see identity is not enough for forming coherent social groups in online
how ofine and online are connected in different ways though gaming and poses questions for future research about the organi-
users concrete practises. The studied individuals here subscribe sation and structure of social interaction in online venues. Suc-
to a techno-utopian ideology, seeing digital technology as breaking cessful collaboration requires engagement in the gaming
borders and supporting new ways of communication in society. encounter to be as unproblematic as possible and engaging with
Yet, this ideology hides a concrete practise that is rather reinforc- signicant others or sets of similar people is seen as a way of pro-
ing certain boundaries and material realities based on ofine rela- ducing stable social groups. Gaming is about fullling the goals of
tionships and cultural values. Gaming online affords playing the game and the rewards are in the activity itself. Yet, as seen
together with family and friends as a social leisure activity and here, gaming also lls an additional purpose; the reward of social
spending time with individuals important in everyday life. For gaming is not only in the game but in the relations that are main-
enjoyable play, gamers here gravitate towards guilds composed tained around it. While sociability truly is in the nature of online
of individuals similar to themselves in some sense, displaying ten- gaming it is the collaborative action that allows the social interac-
dencies towards homophily. In relation to this is the organisation tion a focus and the creation of this particular social world.
of game-play where gamers, while occasionally enjoying playing Gamers are thus often linked by instrumental ties, quite contrary
with strangers, found it easier to pursue successful gaming with to the idea of community as consisting of strong, stable social
individuals sharing social worlds with themselves. Even though bonds between members. Competition might demand less in the
new technologies allow people to extend the number and nature form of organization but the results indicate that similar mecha-
of the social worlds they have access to, at the same time the dig- nism are at work, foremost related to valuable leisure and the cre-
ital and the physical reinforce each other, as we have seen here. ation of stable clans for gamers to belong to and support a game
Relationships are difcult to maintain through this online world community.
alone unless there are further connections between individuals For the experience of digital gaming, constitutive rules create the
such as ofine ties, similarities in life-style, shared cultural under- encounter yet cannot solely help us to understand these social
standing, or geographical proximity; the specic ofine shared encounters. While these rules make up the gameness of the game,
social worlds of course vary. We see again the relational and situ- the challenge meant to be overcome (Juul, 2005), they are not alone
ational nature of virtuality, in different situations it mean different in structuring the sanctioned orderliness of the gaming encounter.
things; it is a uid concept. Regulative rules are at work as well, which can be based on gamers
While online games in their very form afford and promote ofine social worlds and imposed upon the game world or can be
interaction across boundaries such as nationality or class, the created in the social world of the game itself and managed in differ-
individuals studied here rarely take advantage of these possibili- ent ways. These regulative rules, or norms, organise gaming and gov-
ties. This dilemma is twofold; rst, gaming is seen as a social lei- ern social encounters. Here we can understand the main differences
sure activity supported (sometimes hindered) by design. As such, between collaboration and competition. In current digital gaming
gaming with signicant others increases the value of the activity competition is much less dependent on social norms to govern the
and motivates commitment and use of time. Spending time with social situation and more dependent on structural ordering through
signicant others is one of the main accepted gains of leisure design. In other words, competition is often heavily governed by
(Kelly, 1983) and lends both legitimacy and value to our leisure game structure, creating limits, both spatial and temporal to
activities. In an economy of scarcity, where time is one of our matches and bouts. Points are counted automatically by the game
most contested resources, leisure value entails spending time on and rankings and winners/looser declared by the game. This is actu-
activities that can be motivated. Social interaction with signicant ally quite unique for digital games. Take sports as an example, here
others is one such motivation. Values on how to spend time and players manually keep track of rules and points, pick teams and
what to do with leisure clearly affect how these individuals think decide time and places for games. Here we see larger demands on
about, and practise gaming; ofine values and relationships are social governing to organise the events. In the beginning of online
tightly connected to online practices. Secondly, gamers enjoy gaming we could see the same organization, leagues and matches
interacting with people they do not know. Yet, when this was manually organised and point counted by players and reported on.
the case, people gravitated towards others like themselves. This However, now this is certainly rare for competitive digital gaming
was an unconscious trial and error process in which the gaming online and we therefore see very few online games that require
community divides into sub-groups based on ofine properties. heavy interaction with ones opponents to come to terms with rules
This does not mean that new gamers cannot nd their place or and organization. Competition thus rely more on constitutive rules
that community cannot be upheld. It does, however, mean that and less on regulative rules than do collaboration, however, it is a
social life online is structured and divided along many of the same scale with no xed positions. Yet, we should not take this as any evi-
lines as ofine life; contradicting any separation of the two. The dence that online competition differ in nature from ofine. Today
displayed similarities can be separated into two levels of charac- technology does play a more prominent part also in analogue com-
teristics; rst, macro level similarities such as country of origin, petitions, with e.g. goal cameras and video replays. However, further
shared language and cultural understanding, and secondly, on a research is needed to more fully map out the relationships between
more individual level, age; connected to but not the same as, competition and constitutive/regulative rules.
life-stage similarity, here empirically represented by occupational When interacting with individuals where an ofine space is not
status (in employment or a student) and parenthood. That people shared, the ofine characteristics of participants are still important,
534 L. Eklund / Computers in Human Behavior 53 (2015) 527535

as they can support or work against a shared cultural understand- for social groupings and interaction. Games can, through their
ing of the need for and content of regulative rules. Creating or par- design, both hinder and be unsupportive of sociability by
ticipating in groups limited to a certain nationality or language is reducing the opportunityor necessityfor social collaboration/
one way gamers support online social life through shared ofine organization.
characteristics. Interacting with strangers calls attention to the Online/ofine is further linked through preferences for similar
importance of design support for the creation and enforcement others as gaming companions, so called homophily. Ofine
of norms or regulative rules. When online, users interact with each friends/family allows additional embedding of social norms sup-
other and these regulative rules are realised and actualised. While porting both sociable interaction as well as instrumental aspects
gaming some can become constitutive rules if game companies are of attaining game goals. Social worlds thus overlap and strengthen
pressured by the community (see e.g. Eklund and Johansson, 2013). each other. For individuals not sharing an ofine setting the more
Important, however, is that relationships among the researched similarities on both a macro level, such as country of origin or lan-
sample were found hard to maintain on a basis of constitutive or guage, and micro level, such as age and life-stage, the easier the
online regulative rules alone. The more embedded a relationship, creation of stable social groups is perceived to be. Through these
the more it will be subjected to social pressure (Feld, 1981). Addi- shared social worlds norms and values online are supported by
tional embedding of a relationship will increase the evolution of these ofine structures thereby strengthening groups and support-
social norms to govern that particular activity or application of ing interaction. So not only is the opportunity for sociability
more general norms shared by the participants. These online increased, people have more to talk about; instrumental aspects
spaces that users occupy allow for synchronous doing together of goal attainment is also beneted by homophily.
with others and in this way online worlds become arenas for social In peoples practices several social worlds meet and the bound-
actions. However, this interaction is tightly connected to ofine ary between online and ofine becomes contingent of these links.
places and informants practices renounce the disconnection of In short, it seems that the importance of ofine connections for the
the virtual from the physical, questioning online worlds as inher- creation and sanctioning of norms has been overlooked in previous
ently virtual. How social norms are embedded in either ofine research. Understanding each other, keeping the same time sche-
relations or in online communities will affect the success of game dule, and valuing the same things outside the online space are fac-
encounters as well as the perceived pleasure of interaction of both tors that inuence this social ordering. Research should therefore
collaboration and competition. In cases with only online embedded further explore this link in order to improve our understanding
norms, how design includes them in the constitutive rules is of of online interaction. As the current results are limited to the sam-
great importance for peoples opportunities of creating strong ple group at hand, more comparative studies are called for.
online communities. Future studies should draw on these results
in nding and dening specic mechanisms for supporting differ-
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