The explosive growth of the Internet has enabled virtual communities to engage in social activities such as meeting people, developing friendships and relationships, sharing experiences, telling personal stories, or just listening to jokes. Such online activities are developed across time and space with people from different walks of life, age groups, and cultural backgrounds. A few scholars have clearly defined virtual community as a social entity where people relate to one another by the use of a specific technology (Jones, 1995; Rheingold, 1993; Schuler, 1996) like computer-mediated communication (CMC) technologies to foster social relationships (Wood & Smith, 2001). It is further supported by Stolterman, Agren, and Croon (1999) who refers to virtual community as a new social “life form” surfacing from the Internet and CMC. There are several types of virtual community such as the virtual community of relationship, the virtual community of place, the virtual community of memory, the virtual community of fantasy, the virtual community of mind/interest, and the virtual community of transaction (Bellah, 1985; Hagel & Armstrong, 1997; Kowch & Schwier, 1997). These types of virtual community all share a common concept, which is the existence of a group of people who are facilitated with various forms of CMCs. With the heightened use of CMCs, people begin to transit and replicate the same sense of belonging through meaningful relationships by creating a new form of social identity and social presence. As emphasized by Hiltz and Wellman (1997), people can come from many parts of the world to form “close-knit” relationships in a virtual community. The purpose of this article is to understand how online gamers as a virtual community build social relationships through their participation in online games. Empirically, several aspects in the context of virtual community are still not fully understood, such as: (1) What types of rules, norms, and values are grounded in virtual community? (2) How do people institutionalize their members in a virtual community? and (3) Why do they create social relationships in virtual environment? The identified gap thus explains why studies have produced inconsistent findings on the impacts of online game play (Williams, 2003), in which many studies in the past have only looked at aggression and addiction. A more detailed understanding of the social context of in-game interactions would help to improve our understanding of the impact of online games on players and vice versa. Therefore, this article will present a case study of a renowned online game, Ever Quest (EQ), with the aim of understanding how players establish and develop social relationships. In specific, the Institutional Theory was applied to examine the social relationships among the players, and a hermeneutic- interpretive method was used to analyze the data in order to address the following general research question, “How is the social world of EQ constituted in terms of building social relationships?”
Background Of Everquest
The virtual community of gamers’ environment investigated in this study is Ever Quest (EQ). EQ is the world’s largest premier three-dimensional (3D) “massively-multiplayer online role-playing game” more commonly referred to as MMORPG. People are becoming more attracted to this new type of online game, which is a subset of a massively-multiplayer online game (MMOG) that enables hundreds or thousands of players to simultaneously interact in a game world where they are connected via the Internet. Players interact with each other through avatars, that is, graphical representations of the characters that they play. The popularity of MMORPGs have become evident with the introduction of the broadband Internet. MMORPGs “trace their roots to non-graphical online multiuser dungeon (MUD) games, to text-based computer games such as Adventure and Zork, and to pen and paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons” (Wikipedia, 2004, para. 2). It is expected that online gaming will grow from a $127 million industry in 2003 to a $6 billion industry by the year 2006 (ScreenDigest, 2002).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Social Relationship: Involves dynamics of social interactions, bounded and regulated by social and cultural norms, between two or more people, with each having a social position and performing a social role
Online Gaming: A game that requires a connection to the Internet to play; they are distinct from video and computer games in that they are normally platform-independent, relying solely on client-side technologies (normally called “plug-ins”). Normally all that is required to play Internet games are a Web browser and the appropriate plug-in (normally available for free via the plug-in maker’s Web site).
MMOPRG: Massive(ly)-multiplayer online role-playing games or MMORPGs are virtual persistent worlds located on the Internet. They are a specific subset of massive(ly)-multiplayer online games in which players interact with each other through avatars, that is, graphical representations of the characters they play.
Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC): Process of human communication via computers involving people, situated in particular contexts, engaging in process to shape media for a variety of purposes (December, 1997)
Virtual Community: A virtual community is primarily a social entity where people relate to one another by the use of a specific technology (Rheingold, 1993).
EverQuest: EQ was one of the world’s largest premier three-dimensional (3D) MMORPG. It is a game that attracts an estimated 400,000 players online each day from around the globe and, at peak times, more than 100,000 players play EQ simultaneously (Micheals, 2004).
Case Study: A research design that employs an in-depth or rich investigation of a phenomenon; the unit of analysis can be a single or several person/individual, organizations, or environment/ context to be examined.