Videogames and the Great Communication Breakdown
Humans have an innate instinct to communicate with each other. This one simple function has opened our creative minds to a world of possibilities both technological and artistic. Coincidentally, videogames stand as a great coming together of the technological and the artistic worlds, and yet, for some reason communication within this great gaming universe is perfunctory at best – downright bilious at worst! We all have headset horror stories to tell. Vast swathes of racist bulling and misogynistic, nonsensical claptrap spouting from the mouths of bedroom dwelling morons channelled directly into your ear via the wonders of misused modern technology.
It’s not all bad though. For every cluster of dumb comments squawked behind the cloak of anonymity comes a gem of intrigue or a flicker of a connection between yourself and a faceless voice from across the digital void. I once spoke to a young man from New Orleans who was about to head out to Iraq on his second tour. He worked for some ordinance division, and was worried that his wife was cheating on him whilst he was away. We spoke for about four hours whilst we played and, for whatever reason, I tried to convince him his wife was being loyal. We said we’d keep in touch and I added him to my PSN friends list, but he never came back online.
I’m sure he’s fine. I found it amusing that he was heading to the most dangerous area of the most lethal country in the world and yet he was worried about whether his wife was cheating on him. I said he should focus on the big picture and pray he comes back alive. He said if his wife was cheating on him he didn’t have anything to come back alive for. The irony of us playing Call of Duty 4 together was lost on us both. I never forgot that conversation.
Sadly this insight into another human existence is about as far as I got with voice chat. A good friend of mine informed me that I could link up any given Bluetooth headset to my PS3 and natter away to my hearts content, but I rarely use it now. Other players tend not to appreciate the volume I play Pink Floyd, and complain that it reduces the quality of the sound to muffled wails and crackly guitar licks. Bully for them, David Gilmour is God!
Call of Duty has really become the byword for in-game verbal hostilities. An entirely new lexicon has formed around the many different ways to insult each other which, although being fairly simplistic and negative way to express oneself, is rather impressive nonetheless. As much as I dislike voice chat in Call of Duty, I’m not in any way surprised to hear the function being used for anything else. Modern Warfare 3 was more focused on who has the best reactions and fasted connection speed as opposed to who can organise their team and communicate the best. Team play is not as essential as Activision would have us believe, and certainly not as essential as more team focussed shooter such as Battlefield 3.
Is this simply a case of the devil making use of idle hands (or tongues in this case)? Team communication works at its best when used in a clan or with friends as opposed to a bunch of strangers muddled together in a load-out lobby. The simple fact of the matter is that a proportion of gamers (especially on the PS3) do not own or choose not to use headsets. Whether they find them too costly or too invasive is a question in point, but more often than not I was on a team of players talking to myself.
Voice chat is the most immediate way to communicate to other gamers. I dislike it, and have done for some time now, choosing only to connect my mic when I want to speak to those I already know as opposed to those I never want to meet. As a form of expression it’s basic and fairly under used as a way of engaging tactfully within the gaming environment. More than anything, sensible use of voice chat cannot be enforced by the developer. Because of this I have noticed an abundance of games that have chosen to omit or slightly alter the way we communicate with each other in the gaming world. Whilst it’s not specifically an online title, Dark Souls creates a great sense of atmosphere and, more importantly, a very engaging system of communication within its terrifying caverns and crypts. By leaving notes on the floor, players can guide others to hidden riches, warn them of impending danger or tell them to jump into a bottomless ravine. It’s amazing how easily I trust the burning words of a callous stranger.
Dark Souls is much more reserved with its approach to communication. Sentences can be built from a small but intelligently selected chain of words and phrases. Whilst this limits the amount of information that can be passed down to the next plucky adventurer, it does cut out much of the ineligible rubbish that would inevitably clutter the floor. How gamers choose to use this function is often insightful and occasionally frustrating. The phrase ‘once bitten, twice shy’ was never more apparent than with regards to pranksters promising great things just over the edge of a cliff.
More than anything, these messages become a guide and a godsend as the game twists and turns to even greater depths of impossibility and darkness. A well placed warning or tactical advice can almost restore your faith in humanity if it saves you a traipse back to a save bonfire. This cautious and fumbling approach to exploration is unusual in today’s high-octane world of videogames and the limited method of message scrawling is not suited to most games; but Dark Souls’ apparent hatred of its players is a unifying attribute and focuses gamer’s attention towards helping each other.
Existing in Dark Souls is a solitary experience. Other players can visit your world to help defeat a boss, or give you a good kicking for whatever reason, but for the most part your only communication with the rest of humanity is through the ghostly text of another. This lonely existence is not unique but it is certainly rare. Most developers are very enthusiastic about creating a great sense of personality and ownership around their games; none more so than the team behind LittleBigPlanet who rested the success of their game on the hopes that a community would build upon its play, create, share mantra.
As you guide Sackboy around the community made levels communication is made available though animations you can access via the control pad. Expressions and general flapping and slapping is fairly useless but the ability to point slowly becomes more and more useful as you progress. Whilst gesticulation is an excellent tool to help parties progress from one end of the level to the other, it is not communication as the developers wanted it. Similar to Dark Souls’ message leaving, LittleBigPlanet allows you to leave a little piece of yourself behind for others to absorb. The ability to create your own level is both powerfully rewarding and highly expressive and stands as the best example of how to engage with a community in gaming.
Although, as with both other example, tricksters will always grab hold of the medium for their own devilish exploits such as crafting enormous bouncy foam penises to navigate across (I saw it with my own two eyes); for the most part LittleBigPlanet acts as a blank canvas for whatever you care to express and share.
As more and more consoles are linked together communication will become a greater aspect of how to heighten the gaming experience. Examples such as Call of Duty and Halo are not great ways to illustrate the use of communication within gaming as they are too readily abused for the sake of a cheap laugh. Unfortunately these games are always looked upon as stalwarts of the medium because of their media attention and popularity. It is this misuse that prevents in game voice chat from being a great way to converse with those we wouldn’t readily speak to. Videogames are a very young medium so it may take some time before we fully understand how gamers will engage with voice chat. The decision by Nintendo to not include voice chat in any of its first party software shows discomfort with the potential risks that are involved.
On a whole, being sociable whilst playing games is nothing new. Everyone remembers gathering mates round a Mega Drive trying to get four player Micro Machines to work properly. The anonymity of internet people is both beguiling and troublesome. As technology develops and social networking is slowly integrated into games with the likes of Call of Duty’s Elite service, communication and networking will become a bigger part of our gaming lives. How we engage with it is up to us.