Right after World of Warcraft was released, Kelly Bergstrom left her boyfriend at Simon Fraser University while she went to visit her grandma.
The then-undergraduate student returned two weeks later to find her boyfriend where she left him, only greasier from not having shaved, nor showered.
Bergstrom started asking a lot of questions about how to play. A ploy, she said, that was intended to annoy him into paying attention to her-- and she's been playing ever since.
Now a PhD student in the University of Calgary's Communication and Culture faculty, Bergstrom is studying how technology changes the way we communicate with each other.
"I'm interested in the way that online and offline behaviour gets mapped onto each other," she said. "You can't completely divorce who you are in face-to-face-- or who you decide to be-- when you enter one of these virtual worlds."
Focusing her research on massively multiplayer online games, Bergstrom is studying couples who play World of Warcraft together.
She's still in her data collection phase, but Bergstrom has a theory. She cited Ray Oldenburg, an urban sociologist, who writes about the "third place."
"First place and second place are work and home, third place is where you go to socialize," she said. "It's kind of like Cheers 'where everybody knows your name.' "
Oldenburg's research focuses on how the structure of suburbia discourages third places, effectively discouraging social interactions through the design of neighborhoods without common areas.
Oldenburg, explained Bergstrom, said that modern divorce rates are so high because there is no third place for husbands and wives to retreat to.
Bergstrom, and other researchers like her, wonder if virtual worlds can effectively become that third place. And if they can, she wonders if couples that game together will stay together.
Bergstrom, who conducts many of her interviews online and in character, has also interviewed people who have had friends move away and use WOW as a way to stay in touch, rather than chatting on MSN.
More commonly, it adds a social element for people that would normally just play a console game, she said.
"If Oldenburg is correct and we are increasingly isolated, then MMOs are an easy way to hang out with people," she said. "You never have to leave your computer room."
With 11.5 million monthly subscribers around the world, Bergstrom noted that although there are many stereotypical basement-dwelling male players, WOW competitors come in all stripes and they're all playing together.
"I think that a key thing, with Warcraft especially, is that if you want to go past a certain point, you have to work with different people," says Bergstrom. "If you want to kill a monster, you're going to have to round up 39 of your fellow players and go kill it together. You have to build up a social relationship so they know you're not a jerk, or that you're going to steal their stuff."