Twenty years ago, sociologists went wild over the idea of the "third place," a zone between work and home that served as a community-building social buffer. Whether they're coffeehouses, bars, barber shops, beauty salons, bowling alleys or other gathering spaces, third places are easily-accessible. People from all walks of life can gather to talk and relax over food and drink, and otherwise hang out and rejuvenate themselves.
It's the bar in "Cheers," or Moe's Place in "The Simpsons" -- or the mall for teens at any suburb. It's the artsy coffeehouse in a college town, or even the stoop of your favorite shop in the city. Third places increase the bonds of connection to one another and to communities as a whole -- and therefore boost active participation in our democracy, according to sociologists like Ray Oldenburg, who wrote the seminal book, "The Great Good Place," which is devoted to the idea of third places.
Ten years ago, sociologists and other academics became fascinated with the idea of the Internet as a virtual third place -- then-emerging chatrooms, bulletin boards and mailing lists, among others -- as real-life spots began to decline. Outside of the food and drink, they met all the criteria. And as Facebook and Twitter grew, researchers though they would turn into the greatest third place of all.
But that hasn't been the case, because social networks often turn into an odd kind of social obligation -- and nothing kills the spirit of a third place faster than a sense of responsibility, Oldenburg said. On Facebook, you agonize whether to post photos of your weekend debauchery -- who might see it and whether it'll get you fired. And those so-called friends? Deciding who to tolerate, hide or delete turns into an existential dilemma. Sure, everyone knows your name on Facebook... and that's a bit of a nightmare.
But that doesn't matter. I've found my greatest third place. I've found... Happy Street.
What's the App?
Happy Street is a free world-building game on iOS and Android. But to fully appreciate it, you have to travel back to an era where the biggest thing in console gaming was Nintendo's GameCube. Sure, you had Mario, Zelda and Madden, but my favorite was the social simulation game Animal Crossing, first released in 1994, and still available for the 3DS.
Animal Crossing was both ridiculous and cute: set up your home in a small village populated and friendly animals talked to you in nonsensical, yet adorable, babble. To live in the village, you had to make "bells" -- the game's currency of choice -- by fishing, collecting shells, digging up and selling fossils, and planting and harvesting orchards. You could spend that money and buy goods, as well as pay off the mortgage on an increasingly bigger house. You could also send letters to, and chat with, new animals and fulfill their errands for more bells.
The beauty of it was that while there was constant growth and improvement in the simple, yet varied, activities, there was no overarching goal. It took place in real-time, so you played at your own pace and set your own goals. It was a fun, relaxing experience -- the gaming equivalent of a third place, as well as being so darn cute.
Of course, as a Nintendo game, Animal Crossing never made it to iOS or Android, and devoted fans flood to forums lamenting that fact. But luckily, Happy Street stepped in to fill the void, a perfect combination of adorability, intricacy, ease and depth.
Like Animal Crossing, in Happy Street, you move into a new area and set up a house and business -- only instead of a village, you get a street. Colorful little animals -- dressed as tiny Vikings, samurais, medieval warriors and other quirky costumes -- walk up and down the street. They buy from your shops and ask you to "craft" items for them and gather resources from mountains and forests.
As you pile up coins, as well as a special currency called "Flooz," which lets you buy special collector items or speed up your crafting and building time, you can buy and upgrade more land, street decorations, shops, homes, hotels, dojos, taverns -- you name it. As you level up, you open up new buildings and shops -- there's seemingly endless upgrades, improvements, mini-games, special characters and quests. I've played Happy Street for weeks, and there's no end in sight to what you can improve upon and grow.
There's even spots of crude humor, such a bird character that poops on characters' head when you tap on it as it flies in the sky.
Getting your bearings is easy, since the first few characters walk you through the basics, like shopping for your street or crafting special items. Part of the pleasure is unlocking special features, items and characters as you progress, though it's easy to overlook something you've already stumbled upon or get confused when a character refers to an item or a place you haven't unlocked yet.
The game is both fast and slow-going. It's easy to rack up coins as residents and out-of-towners swing by your boulevard. You tap on visitors to earn hearts, and once you get a certain number, you can start a "fiesta," which sends all the villages in a spending frenzy. It takes more coins to buy more land, though, which you need to upgrade to more profitable businesses.
Crafting items can also take a long time, too -- some special items take up to eight real-time hours. You can speed up the process with valuable Flooz. But be careful -- earning it is slow-going and difficult.
The result is a game that offers constant stimulation and strategizing, but at a leisurely pace. It's the perfect game to check in for a few minutes through the day. Tend to your shops, go fishing, craft items and then it hums along as you do something else.
There's even a real community element -- you can find friends, visit their streets and trade special items. Happy Street has a big online community and you can share tips and information in a bona-fide online third place.
The game is fun to look at and a pleasure to play. The animations are colorful with a lot of interesting touches, like "Om nom nom" animal friends say when they buy from a restaurant. There are in-app ads, but it's rare -- the game makes its money by selling more Flooz. Heavy play can drain your battery fast, though, so bring a charger if you're addicted.
You'll Want It If...
You miss Animal Crossing and wish you could play it on your phone. Or you're looking for a real social game that you won't get bored with soon -- and wouldn't mind a big dose of cuteness as well. Happy Street is so well-designed, there's always something new to discover. Maybe the game has an end, but if it did, it would take a very long time to reach it.
It's Not My Thing -- What Else Ya Got?
"Bah, cuteness!" you say? "Just give me the buildings!" If you don't like the charm of tiny animal ninjas and Vikings that prattle in squeaky babble, try a more traditional city-building game like SimCity Deluxe. The classic is still one of the best building games around, but the iPad version is especially bug- and crash-happy.
If zombies are your thing, Rebuild is a fun game. You've just survived an apocalypse, and need to scavenge for food, rediscover technology and reclaim your town -- one building at a time -- from the brains-craving undead. It's not as intricate or exhaustive as Happy Street, but no less addictive. If you've ever wanted a virtual "third place" hangout with a bit of horror mixed in, Rebuild is for you.
In the end, though, Happy Street has a devoted following for a reason: it's impeccably designed, making it a great place to visit again and again. And that's what defines a successful third place, in real-life or on your phone.