I follow the thinking of sociologists that the concept of community is a social construct. While some communities may have physical addresses, what makes a community a TRUE community is shared experiences, shared values, shared goals, and shared lives (Bartle, 2007). This paper will address the question: Is it possible to form a virtual community? I strongly believe that, by the standard above, online communities DO exist and are re-shaping our relationships. To support this position, I will cite personal examples regarding online communities, including a jaunt into the World of Warcraft; address the re-shaping of relationships; and highlight statistics regarding concerns raised regarding online gaming.
The experiences, values, goals, et cetera that form communities do not have to currently exist; they may have existed once in the past. For example, I was part of a wonderful community of sorority sisters in college. We had experiences that I will always treasure. Even though we are no longer together in the same house, at the same school, and in the same city, I still consider myself a part of that community. In addition, through the use of recently available technology, this community has morphed into a virtual one. I have found many of those girls on Facebook and keep up with their lives with posts and by instant messaging when we are simultaneously on the site. While the underpinnings of the relationships of my sorority sisters were formed face-to-face, today, this community is dominated by virtual interaction.
Because of personal experiences similar to the one above, I scoff at the notion that virtual communities cannot form. Isn’t our online communication masters degree an online virtual community? We are all gathered together with shared values towards education, shared goals for higher degrees, shared experiences through postings, and shared lives through our eight weeks together. To this point, I agree with Howard Rheingold’s reasoning for online communities as social aggregations as well as Amy Jo Kim’s concept of virtual communities as augmented reality where “you’re ‘you,’ and you’re there to integrate with your life – deal with the issues in your life… shaping your life” (Thurlow, 2009 and Boetcher, 2006).
To further my experience in virtual online communities, I ventured into the world of Massive Multiple Online Role Playing Games, specifically, World of Warcraft. In online gaming, a virtual world is a “persistent, synchronous computer-simulated environment wherein a network of users interact with each other and the three-dimensional environment” (Doodson, 2009, p. 1). These worlds are virtual gatherings closely mimicking the physical world complete with towns, businesses, currency, and communities. In these worlds, characters, called avatars, are surrogate projections of yourself that are controlled by the operator via a mouse or computer keyboard. Avatars gather together in these shared groups and bond through experiences, discussions, battles, tasks, or other collective goals. Much like our online class, I found that the World of Warcraft fit my definition of community as there are shared experiences in all of the gaming interactions, shared values in the desire to play and interact with others via computer mediated communication, shared goals in relaxing and meeting others to advance the game, and shared lives in the time spent together in this virtual world.
As the introduction of online technologies has re-shaped some of my relationships and offered me entry into new communities previously unavailable, the introduction of the written word long ago offered a similar revolution. Writing “separates the knower from the known” (Ong, 1982, p. 46). Part of this allowed separation involves an ability for people to break away from the individuals who knew and told the stories. No longer required to stay close in a community to hear the oral traditions, humans in a written society are allowed to adapt, create distance, and form new communities. Interestingly, this is what the computer has also done. When moving from an oral culture to a written culture, there was resistance and criticism that changes like this would lead to the demise of the community when, in fact, it simply re-defined and re-shaped communities. With the move from a written society to a computer society, the same has occurred. It has allowed humans to adapt, create distance, and form new communities as well. “In the noetic world, separation ultimately brings reconstituted unity” (Ong, 1986, p. 48). To me, this means, in part, that, while computer mediated communication may have altered some face-to-face community situations, it has also provided for an entirely different sort of community.
As with any period of change, concerns have arisen regarding the impact of virtual gaming and online communities. Arguments have been made that extended time in virtual communities and playing online games can result in an exaggeration of already existing social disorders. For example, some individuals are not comfortable interacting in face-to-face situations. As an outlet, a number of these individuals turn solely to online communities to have relationships, neglecting the physical world (Thurlow, 2009). While this is a prominent concern, statistics to do not support it. A study conducted by two German scientists found there was no “indication that playing [online games] leads to a weakening of offline social relations,” which agreed with Johannes Fromme that there is no “need to be alarmed about electronic games leading to social isolation [as] ‘in most cases (gaming) seems to be fully integrated into existing peer relationships” (Kolo, 2004, p. 14 & 16). But as our use of the virtual world is evolving quickly, further study of potential drawbacks and benefits should be examined.
I have contended online communities not only exist, but are re-shaping our relationships. Furthermore, virtual communities and online gaming, used within moderation, can have numerous positive impacts upon individuals. It can improve antisocial behavior and cognitive skills, encourage different educational practices, reconnect friends, and introduce people to new communities. The studies conducted on members of these online communities are still in their early stages and I look forward to the publication of further documentation to determine the advantages and drawbacks to what is fast becoming a mainstream activity. Ultimately, I believe that virtual communities and online games can provide immeasurable positive benefits to people on many different levels.
Bartle, P. (2007). What is community? Retrieved on January 25, 2011 from http://www.scn.org/cmp/whatcom.htm
Boetcher, S., Duggan, H., and White, N. (2006). What is a virtual community and why would you ever need one?? Retrieved on January 25, 2011 from http://www.fullcirc.com/community/communitywhatwhy.htm
Doodson, J. T. (2009). The relationship and differences between physical- and virtual-world personality. Retrieved January 26, 2011 from http://people.bath.ac.uk/jd254/JamesDoodson-UOB-UGradDiss.pdf
Kolo, C. and Baur, T. (2004). Living a virtual life: social dynamics of online gaming. Retrieved February 3, 2011 from http://www.gamestudies.org/0401/kolo/
Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: the technologizing of the word. London: Routledge Publishing.
Thurlow, C., Lengel, L., and Tomic, A. (2009). Computer mediated communication. London: Sage Publications Ltd.