The seductive siren song of technological progress constantly beckons. Medicine, industry, commerce, and entertainment are all driven by the promises that scientific advancement brings. Many think that technology is advancing faster than our ability to make moral decisions governing its use.
As a society, we seem to be locked in a mentality of a technological determinism which implies that just because we can do something means we should, and ultimately will do it. What does the adoption of new technology mean to those who inhabit online worlds? Should we be concerned when players take it upon themselves to alter the dynamics of communication within MMORPGs by embracing technology?
Nothing demonstrates the principle of technological determinism in virtual worlds better than the advent of voice chat. Voice communication software like Teamspeak and Ventrilo first became popular in combat-centric first-person shooters because of the tactical, fast-paced nature of the gameplay. With the introduction of the Xbox Live voice communication has become even more widespread with successful titles like Halo 2 supporting its use.
Recently the world of MMORPGs has seen voice chat steadily gain acceptance as wildly popular games like World of Warcraft attract players from other genres. These new migrants to the MMORPG experience are not only bringing their dollars to the table, but they are also bringing their expectations.
Richard Bartle once said, “newbies come to virtual worlds with a set of preconceptions acquired from other virtual worlds; or, failing that, from other computer games”. Players will always try to imprint the features they had in their first online game onto new games that they play. I believe that this helps to explain why so many people who play World of Warcraft come with a natural expectation to use voice chat.
It’s interesting to note that the popularity and widespread use of voice communication comes from a player-driven paradigm instead of being a fully supported feature in commercial online games. With the exception of Xbox Live there are only a few plans to officially offer voice chat in the online games of the present and the future. In the past MMORPGs like EverQuest would not even allow users to tab out of the games. This was done with the excuse of disallowing cheats and hacks but had the side effect of disallowing other types of software as well. This is no longer the case as players can now legally use 3rd party programs like Teamspeak or Ventrilo and can even order pizza within the game delivered piping hot to their home.
In a somewhat related example, players have been taking matters into their own hands by engaging in real money transactions where in-game items and coins are sold for real-life cash. Combined with the phenomenon of voice chat, we now have two examples of players altering the character of gameplay within online games and doing so completely without the approval of the game designers. While in-game player populism is commendable, are attempts by players to intrude the real world into virtual worlds good for MMORPGs? Are players trying to break out of virtual worlds in much the same way Truman Burbank in the film “The Truman Show” (1998) eventually tried to break out of his artificial small town and ultimately hit a barrier? The answer could be that this new breed of gamers has no interest in role-playing and is instead electing to be themselves, much like the current trend of reality television.
Immersion, which is the successful suspension of disbelief, is one of the cornerstones of a successful virtual world. This is especially true when you are creating a high fantasy world. Many critics of the use of voice chat believe that its use detracts from the sense of immersion they expect to feel. It becomes problematic when a male with a thick deep voiced southern drawl is role-playing a high-elf female. Others have made the valid point that the quality of a voice can give away privacy by revealing age, gender, maturity, education level, or ethnicity and put thus them at a disadvantage. The neutral medium of text is the great equalizer–you are judged by the content of your words and not the sound of your voice. Text is also the long-standing common language of online games and of course, makes the medium of the Internet possible.
Voice chat has other problems that go beyond the immersion issue. Players complain of the profanity and locker-room behavior that is widespread on voice channels. One person on the Vanguard forums made the observation that “voice communication gives people with little to no social skills the ability to ruin the experience of many others.” Of course, since most voice chat software is 3rd party, online gaming companies have no way to police offensive speech nor can speech be logged like text for customer service purposes.
Others complain about the fact that voice chat users seem to abandon text communication and associate primarily with other voice chat users thus alienating fellow guild members who rely on text. Text users often get left behind to die in a dungeon because they had no idea what the group was discussing. Many guilds now require prospective applicants to use either Teamspeak or Ventrilo. There was even a recent thread on the official Word of Warcraft forums where a player who objected to being alienated for not having Teamspeak was removed from his guild for daring to complain. Shouldn’t technology be bringing people together instead of tearing them apart?
To be fair, those who advocate voice chat find it enjoyable, claiming that it reinforces camaraderie among existing friends and enhances their gameplay. Voice chat seems to be most popular in online games during high-level raids for mainly tactical reasons. Leading raids can be somewhat stressful so voice chat allows one to avoid typing into the chat bar and focus on the encounters. However many veterans of online games that have played arguably tougher games than World of Warcraft will tell you that they led and participated in successful raids for years without the use of voice communication. Could it be that the use of voice chat is just a reflection of a new breed of lazy gamers who’d rather speak than type? Perhaps there is too much immersion and voice chat is symptomatic of players looking for a more personal means of expression within these worlds.
What about online gaming companies and their position on the use of voice chat within their virtual worlds? So far most of them are ambivalent on the subject due to the fact that nobody wants to appear to be a modern-day Luddite and be against new technology. Companies would rather be inclusive than exclusive and alienating any part of your potential player base is something they will not do. Another reason for companies not officially supporting it is the cost and complexity of offering it directly not to mention potential legal issues concerning offensive speech.
As voice chat becomes more prevalent it’s going to forever change the way online games are played and created. Encounters will be tested by voice-enabled guilds and will become harder to compensate for the advantage that voice chat gives its users. This will leave text players with a distinct handicap. What of those players that refuse to adopt voice chat? They may be forced to search elsewhere for a more traditional MMORPG experience or abandon the genre altogether. It’s also been rumored that Microsoft will be publishing Sigil’s Vanguard: Saga of Heroes for the Xbox 2 which will be a voice communication-enabled platform. From a personal perspective, which admittedly sounds elitist, the arrival of thousands of Xbox 2 Live players armed with headsets and microphones conjures up visions of barbarians storming the gates of Rome.
Without a doubt the encroachment of voice communication in online games has become a hot topic of discussion lately. Serious questions have been raised about the implications of this technology on the future of the MMORPG genre and the quality of the communities within. In the not-so-distant future, it’s quite possible that players who once cherished notions of immersion and role-playing may be entirely replaced by a new breed of convenience-driven players.
With the success of services like Teamspeak and Ventrilo, players have flexed their collective muscles. They have shown that much like the real money transaction issue, they have taken the initiative and will do whatever it takes to enhance their gaming experience without the approval of developers. I wonder if they have considered the potential downside that history has shown sometimes comes with new technology. Astrophysicist Michael Shalis points out the following:
The Chinese discovered gunpowder but chose not to develop the gun. We in the West generally accept the notion of the technological imperative which, like natural selection and evolution, inevitably leads where it will and precludes purposeful change, directed progress.
Whether the mechanics of gameplay are altered from within by the developers or communication is changed from without by the players, technology impacts virtual worlds. We have a collective responsibility as players to determine the future of these worlds by stopping long enough to ask if what we are doing as individuals is good for the MMORPG community. Nothing is inevitable unless we allow it. After all, is said and done, we make our own destiny.
(Note: this article was also published at Grimwell.com)