Behind the Curtain: Voice Chat - why bother?

Craig Withers
C. Withers|03.14.08

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Behind the Curtain: Voice Chat - why bother?
So here's a thing – I don't use Voice Chat in my MMOs. I understand why people use it, and why some guilds view it as a tool they simply could not function without, but I just don't enjoy using it.

For all that MMOs are a primarily visual medium, there's still something powerful about the written word. While text-only chat can sometimes pose a problem and a barrier to communication – sarcasm, for example, rarely translates well on forums or in Guild Chat – what text does allow is the chance for everyone to have a near-level playing field. Typing out what you want to say gives you a buffer, a small delay between what you think and what you say, it allows you to choose your words carefully. I may be over-stating the case for text here, but I've had a lifelong love affair with words and language, and it's not a relationship that I'm likely to break up any time soon.

That being said, it's one of fate's cruel jokes that I should love the written word so much, yet be forced by my hobbies and interests to spend so much time in online environments where the poor, unfortunate apostrophe is treated with cavalier disregard.

The anonymity of text-only chat is comforting, and it can be a seductive lure. The ability to be someone or something you're not is supposed to be the big draw of MMOs, and RPGs in general. Misrepresentation is common in MMOs, and everyone should know that the 'hot' female Night Elf dancing in Stormwind is very, very rarely going to be female, let alone hot. And even if she is, it's not likely that she'll want to hear the story of how you geared yourself in a full set of Tier 4, or the time you ninja'd your ex-guild's bank.

By avoiding voice chat, there's a feeling of suspense, a mystique that builds up around our friends and guildmates – we know these people based on their behaviour in-game, and build up mental pictures of them from the conversations we have on our forums; that Priest, great jokes; that Mage, aggro magnet; that Warrior, knows everything about any quest, but sucks terribly at pulls. There's a desire not to break that suspense – what if you jump on your guild's Vent server and find out that your GM, who you've came to know and respect for his good leadership, and his reasoned, well-thought out posts on your forum, sounds like Joe Pasquale?

Sometimes I just can't bring myself to face the risk that the people I group with, chat with and relax with, might not live up to my expectations. I play World of Warcraft to relax, and I really don't want to log on each night, and clench my teeth worrying about having to listen to the one guildie who refuses to blow his nose and would rather suck phlegm back down his nasal passages every 30 seconds, or the other guildie whose laughter sounds like the proverbial fingernails down a blackboard.

I'm not just talking about guild chat though. World of Warcraft has had internal voice chat support for a while now. I've never used it once, never even switched it on to listen to anyone, even once. We go on and on about how bad PUGs are in WoW – dealing with idiots over text is stressful enough – imagine how bad it could get if you had to listen to some ninja spouting Chuck Norris jokes while he shards your loot in front of you? Putting that aside, in all of the PUGs I've done since Blizzard rolled out their voice chat interface, I've not once been asked to use it. I like to think that that's for some of the same reasons that I avoid it generally, rather than any concerns over its quality. I could be wrong of course, but I doubt it.

If you indulge in RP, then voice chat might not be for you either. I don't RP myself, but I can imagine that nothing breaks immersion like hearing the Undead Shadow Priest next to you cursing her cat for jumping up on the keyboard again.

There are times of course, when voice chat is a requirement. No-one sane would think of raiding nowadays without using voice chat to organise things. In those circumstances though, it's all business; you're not logging on to hang out and chat randomly – you're logging on with a purpose, you've got a job to do, and voice chat is an important tool for you to use. That's fair enough, and absolutely to be expected.

We've all made friends in MMOs – people we add to our contacts list immediately, arrange regular groups with, and share our *non branded IM client* details with, but very rarely have I ever spoken with any of the friends I've made online. Perhaps I have intimacy issues, or perhaps I'm just a miserable so-and-so, but I enjoy having a little bit of a buffer between myself and the rest of the world. Hopefully the people I've met and will continue to meet in-game won't think any less of me if I continue to keep them at arms' length a little longer.
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