Online Game Worlds as a Virtual Co-presence across National Borders

Prof. Holin Lin
Professor, Department of Sociology, National Taiwan University, Taiwan

Prof. Chuen-Tsai Sun
Professor, Department of Computer Science, National Chiao Tung University, Taiwan

Two defining characteristics of Massively Multi-Player Online Games (MMOGs)—persistence and lack of restrictions in terms of physical space and border controls—make them vital social gathering places for people who live long distances apart. For this project we analyzed various uses of MMOGs as new forms of “co-presence” in a highly mobile global society, using evidence from our own participant observations on Taiwanese servers and posts collected from various game forums on the topic of server-switching behavior in neighboring countries. We identified four types of virtual co-presence across national borders:

(1) Tourism: Players visit game servers in different countries to try new games or to experience different game cultures. This type of co-presence is often viewed by players as “exotic journeys,” with some labeling their posts with thread names such as “Five Days on a Taiwanese Server.”
(2) “Virtual Chinatown/Little Taipei”: Players who live in one country search for, organize with, or join teams consisting of players originally from their home country to play on servers located in another country.
(3) Virtual homecoming: Students studying abroad, foreign workers, or expatriate business personnel play on servers located in their home countries in order to maintain connections with friends and family members.
(4) Collective migration to a foreign server: Due to political restrictions or changes of game environment, players from one country may move en masse to servers located in another country. A well-known example is the collective migration of Chinese WoW players to Taiwanese servers in 2008.

Online games provide players with a strong sense of place and co-presence, a quality that makes MMOGs a promising virtual third place for “living” with individuals far from their physical homes. In an age of rapid globalization and frequent movement between countries for travel, study, work, or relationships, online games are no longer merely portals for exploring other worlds; they also serve as avenues for keeping in touch with one’s roots or as alternatives to home-coming. However, virtual co-presence across national borders is subject to limitations such as language, time-zone differences, political factors (e.g., China’s efforts to control Internet access), commercial considerations (e.g., regulations and policies enforced by local agencies of international game companies), and regional infrastructure of information technology. In this study we analyze how different types of co-presence work under such limitations and evolve over time.