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A World Without Words

Jaime Skelton Posted:
Columns Player Perspectives (Archived) 0

There's a small movement in the MMO gaming community that wants to move away from text-based communication in gaming. Text is "antiquated" in modern gaming; yet MMOs are incredibly text-heavy, particularly when it comes to communicating with other people. Multiple chat channels clog the airways with sensory overload as dozens and sometimes hundreds of people take part in conversations at once. There's a lot to read; for an instant mass communication medium, text almost seems ineffectual, requiring more effort than worth its results. But can MMOs evolve to a text-less communication medium?

Being completely deprived of text chat is an interesting thing. In The Endless Forest (TEF), an online world from Tale of Tales, players take the role of a deer. The player's character has no name; their identity is instead represented by a symbol. Stranger, however, is there is no traditional way to talk to players in the world. There is no text chat and no voice chat. Instead, players can only interact with selected emotes, taking actions like bowing, dancing, nuzzling, and showing various emotions to other deer. You can only find other players by exploration and "sniffing" for their scent, the latter of which will direct you to nearby players based on direction and distance.

While players can (and do) communicate with each other on community sites, this leads to a very intriguing in-game interaction. It is, essentially, like learning a new language. Sure, you can just randomly emote toward another deer-player, or do so 'in character,' but certain actions may mean different things in certain situations. Does a deer want you to follow? To use (or not use) one of the transformation spells in the game? There's a level of surrealism wandering the forests which strips away all personal identity.

Obviously, that isn't an approach that's going to work for an MMO. It does, however, give us insights into what a virtual world without text chat is like.

One of the main barriers to removing text chat is its value for server and area-wide communication. Consider a hub city, for instance. Within that city may be a hundred or more players, each with different reasons to be in the city. You may have, among 100 players, 25 people wanting to trade their wares, 10 people looking to buy specific services or goods, 40 players looking for groups, 10 people just hanging out, and 15 who couldn't care less about any of them. If you strip away text chat channels, and toss them all into a regional voice chat, how will you moderate the rest? 100 people milling about in a single voice chat channel would be ridiculous, and while you could offer separate channels for each purpose, it would be impossible to do so with cross-exposure. That is, the people selling and buying things cannot hear group advertisements, vice versa, and the people just hanging out - who may be interested in both on a more casual basis - are also cut out of the equation.

Voice chat is also incredibly difficult to moderate. You can't turn on "chat filters" to prevent profanity from being censored across the airwaves. If players are to have voice chat systems, it must be under one of two conditions: free-for-all, in which there are no real rules of etiquette, or under constant surveillance, in which all conversations are recorded and there is a live GM present to act immediately on violations. Neither, however, work on a massive scale. The former "laissez-faire" method has been used to some degree, but is best served on a small scale where violations are few and easily reprimanded. The alternative method is costly in staffing, and risks a great deal of personal involvement and judgment on the part of the observing GM. Besides, text is easy to record and search for offenses; voice chat is not.

Which brings up a final barrier in this discussion: technology. In-game voice chat integration has been around for years, and in many ways it's gradually improved. It has grown to support more players, improved voice quality, and offers greater flexibility and control. At the same time, overall performance has struggled. Although issues such as latency and handling multiple voices have certainly made progress, they are still a real concern for players using voice chat - enough that plenty will turn it off after discovering how much of a system conflict it can bring.

There's also a certain discomfort when talking on voice chat with strangers. Certainly, some people warm up to it right away. After all, we're all gamers and it's an effective form of in-game communication. Nonetheless, it is awkward for many to break the veil of anonymity, even partially, by speaking on voice chat. There isn't really much your voice alone can reveal about you, truthfully - in fact, about the only thing the average person can determine by your voice is your gender and accent, but for some that's too much.

The community may prove a final barrier to removing or cutting back text chat in MMOs. While many have come to embrace the fact voice chat has its uses in situations that require more immediacy (groups and raiding), the community still tends to be a little old fashioned. Some of it comes from the inability to role-play effectively through voice-only mediums, some from the shy and anonymous. A great deal of reservation stems simply from the justified perception that many people cannot behave in a civil manner online. At least with text chat, the people who make our gaming hell can be easily ignored or seen, but not heard. It's a lot harder to avoid someone when they're screaming in your ears.

It's possible smaller MMO games, particularly ones with lounge based play, may drift in the future to voice-only communications. Larger titles though, the truly massive beasts with millions of players, will likely remain grounded in text based chat for a long time to come. Until technology can breach the two worlds easily, such as text-to-speech (and vice versa), we'll likely see these mediums coexisting as they do now for years down the road. Technology is slowing down its advancements, and that means we'll have to settle for less.


Jaime Skelton