Silent Conversations: Communicating Without Voice Chat in Online Games

It’s interesting how alternative methods of communication reflect the design philosophy of a given game and even more interesting when players improvise a method of their own to communicate.

Online gaming has become prevalent in this generation of consoles, but curiously, online communication has not grown at the same rate. While many gamers may enjoy playing online multiplayer games, they don’t enjoy communicating with those that they play with. Xbox LIVE has a sullied reputation as a home for racists, sexists, and otherwise annoying fratboys, so it’s no wonder many decide to play without their headset. Since a microphone must be purchased separately for the Playstation 3, many people have decided to play silently rather than pay the extra cash. This isn’t a problem for competitive online games, but it’s a major hurdle for any kind of cooperative game. The whole point of something being cooperative is that the two (or more) players must work together, and that becomes difficult -- if not impossible -- if they can’t communicate. Some games have devised clever workarounds for this limited communication, and it’s interesting how these alternative methods of communication reflect the design philosophy of the given game. Of course, some games have no alternative, and so it’s up to the players to improvise one.

’Splosion Man is a game that embraces only the bare necessities of gameplay. The controls are the epitome of simplicity, requiring only one button and perfect timing to pass most obstacles. We spend the game jumping over, under, around, and through the environment, occasionally slowing down to solve a platforming puzzle, and the co-op mode is filled with platforms we cannot reach by ourselves. The solution here is just as basic as the rest of the game. If two ‘Splosion Men explode at the same time next to each other, they’ll jump higher than normal. Most of the obstacles in co-op can be easily passed as long as each player understands the timing required. But coordinating something as specific as timing without talking is impossible, so the game yet again provides the most simple of solutions: a countdown timer.

’Splosion Man is all about forward momentum, progress is everything. Any kind of communication that doesn’t help players progress is therefore a waste of time. Since progress only requires jumping and timing, and all players know how to jump, the only thing that must be communicated is the timing. The game takes pride in its ability to distill the gaming experience into as few interactions as possible, and its chosen method of voiceless communication reflects this design philosophy.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Little Big Planet, which allows players to use their whole sackboy body to express emotion as well as commands. Pushing left, up, and down on the D-pad makes your sackperson sad, happy, and angry respectively. Also, holding R1 makes each control stick move one of sackboy’s arms, allowing players to wave, point, or hit each other. The game is largely about social interaction, and with the ability to create and share your own levels, the game turns its fans into a social community. You can comment on levels and can play every one with up to three other people.

Since Little Big Planet is all about social elements, it is natural that it would encourage this socialization even when voice communication isn’t possible. The ability to wave and point allows us to specify locations that we want to go to or items that we want to get and being able to express emotions allows for a deeper level of communication than what ’Splosion Man offers. That’s because Little Big Planet is not simply about progressing though each level. The social interaction with strangers and friends is a core part of the game, and that desire to encourage interaction is represented in the way that it lets us communicate without speaking.

Some games don’t offer any alternative to voice chat (most first-person shooters for example) so that makes it all the more interesting when players come up with their own alternative methods of expression. Examples of this improvised communication are best observed in any Battlefield game.

Battlefield games are mostly played for their multiplayer. Only one game in the series has a dedicated single-player campaign. Matches are always team based and require that certain objectives be met for victory. The maps are large and vehicles are usually necessary to get around. In Battlefield 1943, shooting teammates in vehicles has become the most common form of expression in these games, and the act changes meaning depending on the context. If one player takes a vehicle and another player then shoots at them, this is meant as a request to stop. Since the maps are usually large, it’s inconvenient to respawn far from the fighting without a vehicle. So if another player gets in a vehicle and begins to drive away, shooting is the only way for the driver to know there’s a teammate nearby that wants a ride. However, if the vehicle only seats one person, such as a plane, then the act becomes an expression of anger, since it’s likely that the shooter wanted to drive the vehicle in question but was beaten to it. If two vehicles are driving on a long road with no fighting going on around them, shooting the teammate’s vehicle becomes an act of camaraderie, a kind of banter to kill time while waiting to reach the actual battlefield.

Of course, all this is predicated on the assumption that friendly fire isn’t possible. No amount of damage from a teammate will kill you in 1943, but in Battlefield: Bad Company, friendly fire is turned on. For the most part, shooting a teammate in a vehicle holds the same meaning since regular guns aren’t effective against vehicles—except during the last act: vehicles with mounted turrets are quite effective against similar vehicles, so shooting a teammate is likely to be considered a traitorous act instead of a playful one.

A surprising number of big releases this holiday season have online co-op as a major selling point: Borderlands, Modern Warfare 2, Uncharted 2, and Halo 3: ODST. But for every one of them, it’s nearly impossible to communicate without voice chat. It will be interesting to see if future iterations of these franchises add in some method of communication that doesn’t require a microphone, but until then, players will have to settle for talking with their guns.

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