Research Review

Online Play Spaces

By Catherine Cheng Stahl

Online play spaces have fascinated researchers since the beginnings of the Internet. The online world—with its lowered barriers to participation, symbolic and cultural resources, and tools for multimodal expression and self-fashioning (Burton, 2019; Kligler-Vilenchik & Literat, 2020)—houses a wide array of figured worlds (Holland et al., 2001) that are the intellectual playgrounds of youth, literacy, and Internet scholars alike (see, for example, boyd, 2014; Hine, 2015; Ito et al., 2013; Wargo, 2017). Grounded in sociocultural theories and constructivist framings, within these worlds, identities are actively and continuously ‘figured’ (Bartlett, 2005; Ellison, 2014; Urrieta, 2007)—that is, they are contextually constructed through participating in “socially produced, culturally constituted” (Holland et al., 2001, pp. 40-41) spaces.

Many of these online play spaces are also youth-dominated spaces, or what boyd (2014) terms “digital publics”: places to assemble, to see and be seen by a community of peers; places that are often contentious and, contrary to popular (adult) discourses, anything but frivolous and isolating. For young people especially, these represent promising sites of belonging, learning, agency, resistance, and personal and cultural production.

In the literature, researchers of youth use terms like online spaces, virtual worlds, online sites, social networking sites, and digital spaces to describe the rich and complex worlds that young people participate in. Since the early 2000s, millions of teens and young children have inhabited these online spaces as extensions of their physical social arenas (Abrams & Lammers, 2017; Boellstorff et al., 2012; Gajjala, 2010; J. P. Gee, 2018; Ito et al., 2013; Kafai, 2010; Marsh, 2010; Morley, 2021; Wohlwend et al., 2011). Online play spaces have expanded socializing experiences through chats, blogs, vlogs, guilds, e-mails, and multiplayer games (Ito et al., 2013; Kafai, 2010; Morley, 2021) and enabled greater degrees of movement and free play (Jenkins, 1998). At the same time, they have facilitated active negotiations of racial/ethnic and LGBTQ identities (Kafai, 2010; Kafai et al., 2010; Wargo, 2017) and provided opportunities to stimulate alternative ways of thinking and producing knowledge through collaborative games, competitions, and simulated experiences (E. Gee & Gee, 2017; J. P. Gee, 2004; Ito et al., 2013; Kafai, 2010; Squire, 2010; Steinkuehler, 2005). What’s more, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virtual game spaces of Animal Crossing and Among Us afforded youth and adults alike an escape and refuge, and served as sites of rebuilding with and relating to others (Arellano & Ivey, 2021; Licata & Cheng Stahl, 2021).

As their own kind of online play space, social media sites have provided much of the visibility, positive representation, and nuanced narratives not circulated enough in mainstream spaces. Since its inception, YouTube, in particular, has functioned as both a “subaltern counterpublic” (Lee, 2019) and a counterhegemonic space for many marginalized groups (Velasquez, 2015), housing diverse voices and critical commentary of social issues and identity politics (Abidin, 2019; Maguire, 2018). Today, this video-sharing platform remains a site of resistance and a site of narrative plenitude (Nguyen, 2016) for Asians and Asian Americans broadly, who can author a multitude of stories on their own terms without the restraints of various forms of gatekeeping.

Moreover, social media sites, particularly those focused on and shaped by young people, can offer an intimate glimpse into the social worlds and lived experiences of youth. TikTok, for instance—known for its short-form videos and on-trend dances—has provided valuable insights into the online ‘emergency’ learning experiences of youth during COVID (Literat, 2021), as well as collective commentary about mental health, peer-to-peer support, and growing up Gen Z in today’s rapidly shifting and digitally connected world (Cheng Stahl & Literat, 2023).

Simultaneously, social media serve as “playscapes” (Abrams et al., 2017) for individuals young and older—where improvisation co-exists with multimodal identity play (Dich, 2012; Jensen, 2016; Ledbetter, 2014, 2018; Lee, 2019; Maguire, 2018; Sattar, 2006; Tabares, 2019; Velasquez, 2015). YouTube, along with its contemporaries TikTok and Instagram, afford individuals with expanded ways to experiment with and live out their identities in accessible, playful, and sometimes monetized ways. For instance, aspiring young Asian American female entrepreneurs have gained access to professional possibilities through their participation on YouTube (Ledbetter, 2014, 2018; Tabares, 2019). Likewise, everyday Internet users called influencers who accumulate a large following and gain fame through narrations of their personal lifestyles (Abidin, 2016b) merge work with play within social media spaces and complicate what it means to engage in self-production via selfies (Abidin, 2016a). In a similar vein, amidst COVID-19 and the rise of anti-Asian sentiments, the Asian American Feminist Collective engaged in activism and play through collective digital media-making to counter, nuance, and expand Asian American identities (Kuo et al., 2020). These studies—most of which are ethnographically-oriented—reveal social media platforms as generative online play spaces and prompt the public to take individuals’ play seriously.As our worlds become more digitally connected and everyday practices ever more digitally mediated, the divide between online and offline play is becoming blurrier. While some scholars have questioned the relevance of maintaining this binary language (Brownell, 2021; Carrington, 2017; Ellison, 2014; Gajjala, 2010), the seemingly artificial divide is not insignificant. For historically marginalized youth, there still exists a distinction between online/digital spaces and in-person/physical when it comes to access, participation, expression, and production. Each space is governed by its own set of rules, discourses, and ways of working, or “figuring” (Holland et al., 2001; Urrieta, 2007) that shape the construction and experiences of particular identities. For example, for many Asian American youth, the identity label of ‘Asian American’ carries with it material consequences in their everyday lives that they cannot escape, regardless of the space. Yet, contemporary digital spaces continue to hold promise for those who bear multiple marginalized identities and to extend possibilities of becoming more-than for those who regard being Asian American as only one dimension of their identity (Cheng Stahl, forthcoming)