Communities and Social Media

Roll for Community: How Social Media Acts As a Third Place For Table Top Role Playing Games


For fans of table-top roleplaying games (TTRPG), the practice of regular meetings and continuation of a cooperative narrative create a sense of community and socialisation. This is even true for those who are casual spectators of such gaming sessions. The objective of such games is oftentimes not to “win”, but to create an intricate world of storytelling in which the players can live vicariously through their characters on fantastical journeys. Popular TTRPGs notably include Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), a game famous for its intricacy and long-standing popularity amongst players. D&D has seen a recent swell in popularity, bringing a new generation of players to the beloved game. Research has proven that engaging in the imaginative play and social cooperation that is instrumental to D&D is linked to social and creative wellbeing.  Alas, the isolating force of COVID-19 has destabilised regular meetings and threatened to ruin ongoing “campaigns”. Players and fans of TTRPGs (in particular D&D) have responded by turning to social media platforms where parties (groups of player-created characters) will livestream their in-game adventures. Those who watch the livestreamed games may contribute with their suggestions in real time, connect with other fans, share in-game tips and tricks and otherwise participate in other constructive ways. Both players and fans adopt regular and consistent cooperative practices that foster a sense of belonging and socialisation. Whilst the connections of players and fans may be dismissed as flimsy or only existing due to the pandemic, the evolving nature of community within the online space and the already well-established existence of these virtual communities dissuades these critiques. Furthermore, the manifestation of these communities of practice speak to a greater transference of communities to the online space. These online platforms, such as YouTube and Twitch have therefore become third places for fans of TTRPGs to cultivate a community of practice amidst the isolation force of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Notable roleplaying games (RPGs) such as D&D are sites of socialisation and team building for players, fostering a sense of community amongst players and casual fans of the game. RPGs are characterised by engaging rituals and imaginative play (Simpson, Knottnerus & Stern 2018). This is particularly true for the D&D, a game where players create their own characters to enact as they adventure through a fantasy world constructed by story-telling—a cooperative effort between players and the Dungeon Master (DM) (Hawley 2013). The DM is a non-participatory omnipotent party member in charge with the management of the overarching plot of the campaign (Sargent 2014). Though the DM is solely responsible for enforcing the rules of the game (and the fantasy world), the story is carried and enacted by players (Adams 2013). The popularity of D&D is also rooted in its accessibility; the game is low cost, and playable by anyone (Stuart 2019). In Inklebarger’s case study (2020), librarians in Massachusetts began playing the game remotely as a way to entertain and unite patrons of their public library and cited the inexpensive nature of the game as a point of attraction amongst novice players. The game requires little—the only requirements are a set of certain dice, the player’s handbook and the game’s rules (which are freely available) (Dungeons & Dragons 2014). Players meet regularly to construct adventures and quests, taking turns rolling die to gauge the effectiveness of their actions (Dungeons & Dragons 2014). The “real world” where D&D is played and the constructed narrative where the game is lived combine as players and the DM communicate their imagined scenarios and actions to each other (Hawley 2013). For the DM, communicating the imagined to the players promotes interaction and socialisation necessary for the game to be played “successfully”—although winning and losing are not the point of D&D (Hawley 2013). Whilst the adventures and quests are imagined, the socialisation and community created by engaging in TTRPGs such as D&D are wholly real (Adams 2013). A testament to its capacity for socialisation and bonding, D&D has even been played by inmates at a maximum-security correctional facility in the United States (de Kleer 2016). The camaraderie party members share with each other has been linked to higher levels of wellbeing and less depression (The University of Melbourne 2019), attesting to the team-building nature of the game. Likewise, the fantastical nature of play has been linked to a decrease in social anxiety amongst players, allowing experimentation and interaction in a more vulnerable and meaningful manner (Sargent 2014). Ergo, D&D promotes a cooperative and creative social environment for party members to engage in imaginative play in an open-minded and enthusiastic space. 

Alas, the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought an isolating effect on many long-standing campaigns, threatening the physical meeting and social routine of many parties. However, parties have found solace in online social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitch, which allow parties to livestream gaming sessions to a global audience (Stuart 2019), thus forming virtual communities of practice. Members of these communities of practice find consistent interaction centred around shared interest, empowering community members to continue finding social activity throughout the pandemic. Entire YouTube channels are now devoted to livestreams of gaming sessions, with one of the most popular amongst them being Critical Role. The channel has been thanked in part for sparking the renaissance of D&D and is now working on a TV show with entertainment giant Amazon Prime (Whitten 2020). Likewise, the social media platform Twitch hosts several channels devoted to livestreaming D&D sessions, a format of viewing which promotes interaction amongst viewers and players. Livestream audiences can comment, pose questions and affect the course of gameplay in real time (DeVille 2017), heightening the virtual interactive experience. The interactive element of livestream TTRPG sessions promotes learning by example amongst audiences, with some likening the livestream experience to professional sports (Whitten 2019).  Amongst these comments and livestreams, fans and players alike form communities of practice—that is, groups of people who share a concern, passion or set of problems and deepen their knowledge or expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002). Members of a community of practice may not meet out of obligation, but because of the intrinsic value in their interactions which informally binds them (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002). Communities of practice are able to form and operate whilst distributed—that is, without members meeting face-to-face (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002). Even before the pandemic, globalisation and the development of social media platforms functioning as third places were enabling distributed communities of practice (Wenger, McDermott & Snyder 2002). Whilst livestreamed TTRPG’s are inherently decentralised, the interaction found between players and viewers is analogous to events occurring in place-based communities—instead of festivals, rallies or ceremonies, players and viewers of virtual TTRPGs have quests and raids (Simpson, Knottnerus & Stern 2018). As such, these third places functioning as sites for communities of practice are analogous for face-to-face community. 

The digitisation of the third place is a phenomenon which has been predicted by social theorists since the inception of the internet, however few could have predicted the speed with which communities of practice have grown online. Increasing globalisation and screen time coupled with decreased public funding and limited accessibility of physical third places has accelerated the migration of community members to social media platforms, and thus explains the enthusiasm with which players of TTRPGs have migrated to the online space. Ray Oldenburg’s concept of a ‘third place’, or a place where people spend time between home and work (Butler & Diaz 2016), is applicable to these online spaces created for playing and watching TTRPGs. Even pre-pandemic, third places were suffering due to poor urban planning and escalating real estate prices which make low-cost informal meeting places hard to establish and maintain (Butler & Diaz 2016). However, contemporary developments in the accessibility and functionality of social media platforms have enabled them to function as informal gathering places for the virtual public—an online third place (Mustafa 2014). Now, in the grip of COVID-19, the move to establish social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitch as third places is an organic development in strengthening the existing ties between fans of TTRPGs such as D&D—their shared viewing of livestreamed gaming sessions and enjoyment of the game. Contemporary definitions of community offered by Adams (2013) and Hemschemeyer (2020) affirm that these third places do indeed host communities. The community of practice established by fans, viewers and party members of D&D games livestreamed via platforms such as YouTube and Twitch is established through bonds of shared interest (Adams 2013). Hemschemeyer’s (2020) exploration of virtual communities puts forward that virtual communities “emerge when a collection of people come together in a specific place online and begin to build a personal relationship” (Hemschemeyer 2020 p. 5). And so, whilst online TTRPGs are not held in a centralised local place, the shared history and interest of members and viewers adheres to the concept of community. Simultaneously, the members of these communities which form within these third places form communities of practice, based upon their shared interests and objectives. Thus, social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitch are manifested as third places for fans of TTRPGs such as D&D to cultivate communities of practice. 

Criticisms and response

Critics of the virtual community of practice established by fans of TTRPGs such as D&D may only constitute ‘thin’ communities. Similarly, the intense conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic may be the source for the social interaction sought by members of communities of practice hosted in these online third places. However, both critiques fail to appreciate the changing nature of communities and the already established success of online TTRPG communities.   As defined by Turner (2001), these thin communities are characterised by a lack of strong ties to the community and are often simply “fragile communities of strangers” (Turner in Delanty 2018). Likewise, the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on TTRPGs’ online transferal is not sufficient to gauge whether these social media platforms become third places for these communities of practice. These critiques, however valid, are insufficient attempts to strip virtual TTRPG communities of their status as communities of practice. In fact, both critiques may be undone with the same understanding—that communities are increasingly hosted by social media platforms functioning as third places as a natural societal progression, and that as such the strict definition of community is no longer suited to contemporary digital communities. The simple act of viewing, following, and actively participating in online D&D sessions (such as those offered on YouTube and Twitch) builds shared history and fosters social relationships between individuals. This is inherently separate from j& Wellman’s (2003) concept of “networked individualism”, in which an individual resides at the centre of their own online space whilst other separate individuals orbit them. Calhoun’s (1998) theory of virtual communities concedes that virtual communities are often “thin” communities—they are formed by those who have a shared interest, passion or problem, and offer little opportunity for those without commonalities to form and develop bonds (Calhoun, in Delanty 2018). 

Where Calhoun’s argument falls short, however, is its inconsideration of the increasing reliance on social media platforms to function as third places, and thus host communities. Delanty (2018) affirms this by conceding that virtual communities must be instead regarded as a new type of community entirely, and that community has “always taken a diversity of forms” (Delanty 2018 p.215). That virtual communities are founded by shared interests is necessary for the community of practice to be established—without their shared interest of TTRPGs such as D&D, and the social media platforms that function as third places for community members to meet, there would be no community at all, and members would instead function within individualised networks (Hampton & Wellman 2003). Likewise, that COVID-19 has promoted extraordinary circumstances under which these communities have formed also neglects an already-occurring organic shift towards social media platforms acting as third places to host communities of practice. D&D-specific livestreams hosted on YouTube and Twitch ­­­­­­such as Critical Role have existed well before the pandemic, using their platforms as third places to host communities of practice (Francisco 2020). Their utility throughout the pandemic as third places of community rise is a signal of their already increasing popularity. Since 2015, the total unique hours of unique gameplay content on Twitch alone have doubled each year (DeVille 2017). And so, whilst COVID-19 has certainly intensified focus on these social media platforms functioning as third places for virtual TTRPG communities, these communities of practice were already developed and growing. Critiques of the communities of practice centred around virtual TTRPGs such as D&D are warranted, however lack nuance and appreciation for the evolving nature of communities within the virtual space and the existence of already well-established communities of practice pre-pandemic. 


Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has driven an unprecedented level of online participation and community development, the virtual TTRPG community has functioned and thrived by sharing gameplay on social media platforms such as YouTube and Twitch. These platforms then become third places—informal and freely accessible sites for individuals to meet, engage and share. Within these third places, members form communities of practice devoted to their shared interest in TTRPGs such as D&D, a game with proven benefits for the social and creative development of its players. This sense of social connectedness diffuses throughout the community, from players to viewers throughout the livestream format’s interactive ability. Whilst critics may suggest that these communities are “thin”, and poorly established due to the pandemic’s intensifying effect, they are in fact important steps forward in the development of virtual communities, and of the concept of a community as a whole. Whilst the pandemic has plunged society into extraordinary circumstances, the separation and seriousness has become the new normal. Despite this, livestream gamers and their fans have found ways to bring fantastical interaction from our imaginations to our screens, helping the isolated find community and solace amidst the pandemic. 


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5 thoughts on “Roll for Community: How Social Media Acts As a Third Place For Table Top Role Playing Games

  1. Hi Isabelle,
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your paper and as a fan of table-top games I found your discussion to be compelling and well researched. The first time I played D&D I found myself enthralled by the process of creating and developing a customised character and then playing that character in a world predetermined by a peer. The experience was like no other gaming activity due to the game’s ability to form strong social and communal bonds. My only grip with D&D is that I always struggle to find a large enough group of friends who are interested in investing their time long term, as it goes with most campaign style games – I can’t be the only one who has just a handful of friends. I love the fact that online platforms like YouTube and Twitch can bring together a mainly offline community to enable a greater sense of belonging and socialisation for isolated players. I agree and think that the presence of live streaming will bolster the TTRPG community by combining narrative storytelling and social connectedness, similarly to other gaming communities. You’ve mentioned that you’ve started running a DnD campaign, would you consider taking your game online or starting an online game?

  2. Hi Isabelle,
    This was an intriguing read and I found myself wondering whether these gaming communities frequented platforms other than Twitch or YouTube to interact with each other regarding gameplay. Also, you mention that some games have gained prominence–does that hold true for particular gamers/characters too? Do they enjoy a position similar to that of an “influencer”? Asking as a very infrequent and quite disinterested gamer.

  3. Hi Isabelle,

    I really enjoyed reading your paper, I myself have never played any TTRPGs like D&D myself I have seen these pop up on my Twitch and Tiktok pages before and have watched from there they do seem incredibly interesting! Do you think that platforms like Tiktok have exposed new players to join in as in it can be seen as a form of promotion for the game? Or at least sparked renewed interest?

    Also do you think that there is an aspect missing with online play that could be online be found when playing in real life? As in the atmosphere of the game itself feels different online vs in real life especially with the role playing aspect?



  4. Hey Isabelle,

    This was a good read. As someone who tried to get a D&D game going during the lockdown, this is a near and dear topic. While the popularity of shows like Critical Role cannot be ignored, what are your thoughts as the vaccinations start to get further into the community and people are able to play in person again, will these online games still have the same prominence thanks to what social media is able to offer the games or do you think it might lower a bit for people missing that face to face contact?

    1. Hi Thomas,

      Thank you for commenting! As a result of all of the research I have done for this paper I have actually started running a DnD campaign myself—there are a bunch of facebook groups specifically for DnD groups in Perth, so if you still want to start a game definitely check them out!

      You ask a really important question, and one that I think is applicable to many different communities facilitated by social media platforms. Personally, I believe that the migration to online spaces is a naturally occurring phenomenon—increasing globalisation and improved communication technology have seen to that! The pandemic has certainly intensified that, and I think it will be interesting to see how many campaigns which began virtually will continue to run solely online. It seems that members of this community of practice have a dedication and loyalty to their campaign and their parties (players typically stick with the same character throughout their playing career, parties are usually secular with few rotating members). Plus, the online space is simply so convenient. Players do not have to find a set time to meet that works with everyone’s schedules, or travel to different locations. So I do think that there will be consistent presence in these third places.

      Thank you again for your comment! Enjoy the rest of the conference.

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