Quiet Practicality: Non-verbal Communication’s Mechanical Strengths in Online Gaming

I like to think of myself as the strong, silent type in online multiplayer situations. When I’m not playing with people that I know, I generally keep to myself. I often don’t even bother wearing a headset. However, there are times when silence isn’t a choice: non-verbal communication is often enforced by practical, technical, or design choices. There’s no denying the convenience of being able to speak directly to one’s fellow players. Even so, some of my most memorable experiences in multiplayer communication have involved very few words.

Voice chat is a well established feature in video games, but it is by no means ubiquitous within the online population. Unlike Microsoft, neither Sony nor Nintendo has been proactive about giving their online communities voices. Similarly, while it is reasonable to assume that PC players would have microphones, compatibility issues and a myriad of VoIP clients don’t guarantee the kind of standardization that comes with the Xbox Live’s system and bundled microphone. Multiplayer game developers must face the fact that a portion of their audience will not be able to speak to one another.

While this might initially seem like an unfortunate reality, there are benefits for designing robust systems of non-verbal communication. Game researchers Troy Innocent and Stewart Haines describe some of the potential weakness that come with voice chat:

There are some issues that [verbal communication] does not address. It does not allow speakers of different languages to communicate with one another or the development of shorthand codes (unless the speakers talk in code or acronyms). Strangely enough, it can seem unnatural or peculiar in that it breaks immersion. A virtual world that has been carefully crafted to create the illusion of another space or time can be easily broken when the voices of the players do not fit their characters or appear out of context. (“Nonverbal Communication in Multiplayer Game Worlds,” IE ’07 Proceedings of the 4th Australasian Conference on Interactive Entertainment, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, p. 3)

Clever developers can design ways that not only compensate for a potential lack of microphones but also enhance a game’s aesthetics or dynamics.

Left4Dead’s distinctive characters lessen the necessity of voice chat while simultaneously enriching the game’s fiction. Unlike other first-person shooters, Left4Dead’s characters have specific voices and appearances that serve to facilitate communication on behalf of the players.

From an artistic standpoint, this dialogue bolsters the sense of immersion that Innocent and Haines describe by creating characters whose personalities fit within the context of the game’s fiction. The survivors’ nervous chatter and gallows humor helps maintain the game’s tone, even when players have experienced the same scenario multiple times. Learning about the characters’ personalities through their social interactions also gives them a unique quality lacking in characters in games like Halo or Call of Duty. Events like Bill’s death in The Sacrifice are tragic because he is more than an empty vessel for the player’s actions.

On a practical level, Left4Dead’s communication system ensures that players share a minimum level of communication regardless of whether they use a microphone or not. The survivors automatically vocalize the presence of helpful items or attacking enemies using language that is both consistent with the story’s tone and standardized so as to minimize confusion. A player’s vocal reaction to be attacked by a Boomer might sound like “Oh geez! It got me, help!” which — while hilarious — is fairly uninformative. However, hearing Louis’ distinctive voice say “Boomer!” immediately tells other players who is being attacked and by what. As an added bonus, this method of communication can help circumvent audio feedback problems and inane chatter from annoying players without rendering the game unplayable.

Other games augment verbal communication by allowing players to communicate using symbols. As Innocent and Haines explain, this type of system addresses a variety of technical and design issues relating to voice chat: “Pictographic languages are used to make communication more efficient and effective, provide context that cannot easily be expressed in words alone, or to allow communication that crosses over speakers of a variety of languages” (Innocent and Haines, p. 2).

They cite World of Warcraft as an example of how symbols can simplify a complex situation. A 40 person raid can be chaotic, but marking enemies and objectives allows players to coordinate quickly and effectively without the cacophony of dozens of voices speaking at once. The cooperative mode in Valve’s Portal 2 is another example that reminds us why the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is a cliche. Without having a way to mark parts of the environment: “You sit down to try out your first co-op level and tell your partner, ‘Put a portal here,’ and then you spend five minutes trying to explain to the other guy where ‘here’ is” (Chris Remo, “Synthesizing Portal 2, Gamasutra, 20 September 2010).

Speaking might be the most straightforward way of communicating, but such a direct route can bury more creative means of player expression. The LittleBigPlanet games implement a system of body language and visual communication that addresses the practical realities of voice chat on the Playstation 3 and fits the game’s quirky aesthetic. While quantitative data is hard to come by, anecdotal evidence suggests that far fewer Playstation players regularly use headsets, which can make navigating tricky jumps and branching levels difficult. However, in the case of LittleBigPlanet, the number of inputs dedicated to communication outstrip those that are actually used to traverse the environment.

Sackboy’s emotive face and movable arms can send messages that transcend technology or a common language. Bobbing Sackboy’s head along to the beat with the SixAxis is fun, but it can also serve to answer simple yes or no questions. Even the kind of outfits that players wear convey messages: someone wearing a helmet that obscures their face is probably not that interested in non-verbal communication. Players also combine these indirect forms of language with the mechanics of the game: a smile on Sackboy’s face differentiates jumping for joy from being hopping mad. A wacky grin can express whether a swift smack to the head is playful teasing or a stern rebuke. True, similar messages could be conveyed with words, but human voices can sound out of place alongside Sackboy’s unintelligible yelps and penchant for pantomime.

Talking might be simplest way of communicating in online games, but sometimes creativity and practicality can arise from silence.