Boys’ Play in the Fourth Space: Freedom of Movements in a Tween Virtual World


Over a decade ago, Henry Jenkins wrote “‘Complete freedom of movement’: Video Games as gendered play spaces” in which he argued that video games provide a contemporary alternative to the out of doors freedom of movement boys historically accessed. Video games operate like a ‘fourth space’ (a term coined by Van Vliet), a muchneeded alternative to the adult-supervised and structured spaces of home, schools and playgrounds. These findings echoed the work of many developmental psychologists and others who have long understood that children’s access to play in particular spaces is gendered. We draw on Jenkins’ understanding of “freedom of movement” and developmental psychologists’ research into gender play and gendered play spaces to examine boys’ play within, a virtual world that had 1.5 million registered users between the ages of 8 and 16 at the time of our study. While we have a lot of quantitative information about boys’ play in video games and virtual worlds, we know little qualitatively about how they play. This stands in contrast to our nuanced understandings of why girls and women do or do not play, and how they play. Our goal was to extend Jenkins’ notion of “freedom of movement” into virtual worlds, which differ from console games in that players are responsible for constructing much of the content and they often lack a finite goal and story. Combining quantitative and qualitative methods, we analyzed logfile data of 595 players involved in online gaming over a sixmonth period. Twenty-one players also participated in an afterschool gaming club with online and offline spaces. We looked at activity frequencies across 13 categories and analyzed logfile data qualitatively, supplementing our understandings with data from field notes, interviews, and video. Three case studies of boy players were developed, with each player representing a different level of expertise and participation (core, semi-core, peripheral). In extending “freedom of movement” into virtual worlds, we address boys’ navigation of virtual spaces as a process with geographical, personal and social dimensions. We also view these play spaces as gendered along three dimensions; mobility within the space, access to the space, and control over the space. An overview of the boys’ day-to-day activities in Whyville and discussion of their establishment of “home bases,” or spaces which they used as platforms for further exploration in Whyville, shows commonalities across boys’ play. These overviews are supplemented with in-depth analyses of boys’ activities in Whyville, which show nuanced differences connected to their varying levels of expertise. The fact that boy players have “home bases” where they settle for greater or lesser periods of time is compelling and contrasts with the perpetual motion of boys playing console video games. It also contrasts with previous studies of gendered play, which emphasized girls playing closer to home while boys ventured further afield. Along the social dimensions of boys play we found echoes of Jenkins’ characteristics of boys’ historical outdoors play and monster chasing in console video games. Finally, we found it difficult to compare the personal dimension because the possibilities offered to boys for gender play through avatar design activities are more expansive than their ability to choose from a set number of stock characters in console video games. The increased importance of body image in relation to masculinity was also evident in the boys’ attention to avatar design. We conclude that virtual worlds allow for freedom of movement, but in slightly different ways than console video games. Without a finite goal to their play, boys are able to place an increased emphasis on historical dimensions of boys play and create their adventures through interaction with one another and the space of the virtual world simultaneously, rather than through following a prescribed adventure.