In the past couple of columns, I discussed the topic of roleplaying and by extension, what I called social infrastructure in games. This encompasses active support for RP-ers, to in-game structures to utilize, social hubs (not just quest hubs!), and things like emotes and activities that aren’t merely tied to leveling and repeatable content like raids.
One of these features that could be considered both a positive and a negative when it comes to MMO communities is voice chat. Before voice chat, we were all typing into chat boxes, and probably had several color-coded chat channels,– map chat, global chat, area chat, guild chat—you name it. These options still exist, and chat UI options are even important to modern players (see SWTOR for a recent example). However, when it comes to voice chat, it’s great because you can have instantaneous communication without delay when talking to your group. Modern games just take for granted that you will be using voice chat. Voice chat is both an immeasurable tool that went outside the game initially and created a problem that devs may not have adequately solved just yet. It’s a double-edged sword for its effect on the community, even down in ways we might not always see.
While we can still use the chat window to communicate with those not yet invited into our voice server, the net effect is that we’re isolating ourselves in small groups, and because of that, we’re insulated from a lot of new contact. Might also be partly behind the feeling that MMORPGs are becoming more single-player or co-op oriented (which I’ll look at in detail in a future column). Players seem more self-segregated and it’s not uncommon to only talk to your guild or group mates. It’s not impossible to meet someone in an MMO today and become friends, or more, yet the circumstances just feel different when most are in their own private circles.
By not utilizing the chat to its fullest anymore, we’re leaving chat open for all of the things people love to complain about and point to later on as signs of a “bad community”. This means gold farmers, people having unrelated conversations, ragers, “My game is better than yours” back and forth, and nonsense, with a dash of the good, friendly chat mixed in. By mostly abandoning chat ourselves, and keeping all useful stuff behind the wall of our private voice servers, we’re leaving the bad stuff to take over and fester on all the public channels and then complaining about the quality. It’s rather shortsighted. If we’re not out there making an effort to utilize the chat channels anymore, who do we have to blame for the perceived dip in quality of a game’s community in that regard? Some may be quick to condemn without realizing just how average players may be contributing…by not contributing.
The related issue of being able to play with others without ever saying a word is a symptom. This happens to me occasionally when I’m healing or questing. We’re sort of isolating ourselves, but then we complain about the quality of the community. Yet, we’re only seeing a slice of the community in public chat at any given time.
So the overall problem begs some questions. How do we (and developers) combat the effects that this awesome tool has helped cause? How to develop around voice chat to take into account that people are talking to one another verbally too? Finally, what other solutions might there be?
One thing some developers have done for several years now is integrate voice chat into the games themselves. This meets with mixed success and reaction, because sometimes you get the same issues as you do with text chat. Since it’s both anonymous and public, those prone to rage, using racist or sexist language, or overall trolling are still encouraged to ply their venomous wares. Since there’s usually no record of this (unlike chat logs that can be pulled up), the overall effect just may be total impunity.
Sometimes voice chat integration works well. It’s a tremendous asset in games like PlanetSide 2 and similar games where you need quick, twitch-based reaction time. Most MMOs aren’t twitch-based, but the assumption that players will be communicating verbally means design doesn’t have to account for lag in communication. Hardly anyone needs to take the time to type out “Behind you!” these days. Undoubtedly, this has had an impact on some design decisions out there. It’s a safe assumption anyhow, as no one plans raids solely in the chat box, but integrated voice chat is an imperfect solution. Putting everyone into the area onto a voice channel creates its own issues.
The growth of cheap voice chat and integration have been amazing for play and helped change MMOs in several ways. It’s been a boon for communication, strategizing, and especially PvP. Yet the social insulation has helped broaden the distance and the perceived dip in quality in communities across multiple games. There are multiple issues at work that affect that quality, but chat is both superficial and deep. Superficial, because it’s one of the first things to notice, and deep due to its importance. We just haven’t figured out how to solve this dip in overall communication and retreat into our bubbles just yet. To be honest, I’m not certain just what a solution might look like or if is one even exists better than what we have today. Compelling ourselves to take a more outgoing presence in our games might be a start.
Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column. You will also find her at RTSGuru as the site's Associate Editor and news writer. Follow her on Twitter: @c_gonzalez