3: Talk, chat and social life 23 Apr. 08

TALK, CHAT, AND SOCIAL LIFE
Well, talking with people in WoW is sure a far cry different than in TSO. First of all, the vast majority of chat is private, either within guild, group, or one-to-one. So wandering the countryside, one encounters very little social activity. Some general realm chat goes on, seemingly among players who know each other somewhat, but it’s intermittent and doesn’t generally feel like the sort of stuff a stranger could add to.

This makes the world seem socially isolating, as well as populated by small groups, rather than a more general town-square free-for-all type of thing. In addition, so much of that public chat is advertising for group-ups, one-shot comments, or trade requests (in larger cities), that it’s not social in the same way as banter and conversation are in TSO. Would be worth coding for task-oriented vs. relational talk (I know the former would dominate).

WoW is clique-y in a way that TSO is not. Although of course the latter has its cliques, they are often visible – you see folks together, rather like listening to them in the lunch room doing their private thing. In WoW, you simply know they’re having their own conversation but you have no access to it.

Overall, chat in WoW is overwhelmingly task-oriented, even among guild or group members. Even when M. and I were having our flirtatious power leveling session with P. and J., most talk on “Vent” (the voice system) was task-oriented. The flirting was notable because it was funny and edgy, but not because it was particularly extensive or dominant.

In part, this is due to the fact that WoW is a two-hand game, and text chat requires one to basically stop playing. Few activities have any sort of automatic mode, and so there are almost no opportunities to both pursue tasks and chat at the same time. The few automatic things are either too short, or better done with some active involvement (key strokes), like fighting and using spells versus just allowing a character to do the fight automatically with the main weapon.

In other words, chat can get you dead, as it has actually done for me a few times (I am always wanting to chat more than seems to be the norm in-game).

Voice chat, although far easier technically, is oddly, similarly a less lively exchange than I would have expected. In part, this is because it is the standard to use “push to talk,” whereby one must push a button to be heard. It’s rude, apparently, to leave the mic on all the time, picking up breathing, mutterings, and exclamations without filtering. So while busy with an activity, especially fighting or running, use of the button to talk requires some pause in or at least distraction from game play. In particular, I found that in Vent, the talk button is the Ctrl key, and when that is depressed, certain keys in WoW are affected – spells won’t cast, for example. So I had to stop talking if I was going to cast a spell – vital for my survival in a fight as a shaman.

So, interaction in WoW is not a constant exchange. Rather, it’s punctuated by long – and totally acceptable – periods of silence. While at times folks will say, “it’s so quiet in here,” long pauses are both common and expected. Just not too long in voice chat, it seems. In text-only, one can play for at least 20 minutes without a single exchange, I have found.

Perhaps in part because of this structural factor of conversation, or maybe simply because of what WoW is – killing things, collecting, and advancing in stats/power – this is very much a boy-culture world. Not to say I felt shut out as a female, but rather that conversational conventions are very much typical of those identified as the norm for boys on the playground: mostly task-oriented, use of “physical” prowess for social standing, few collaborative social exchanges. By that last I mean, it’s a bit more of the, “here’s the deal” and then, “okay” (or not), rather than the, “what about this maybe?” “okay, and this?” type of feminized speech. The latter is, for WoW, too text-consuming, I think :)

This was/is frustrating for me, as I very much crave more of the social banter – the task-irrelevant, relational information that I find so much fun. Not just flirting, mind you, but the more personal and in-depth type of exchange that was common in TSO. Thoughts, impressions, responses, rather than, “go here” “are we done?” “which quest next” sort of thing. That really can get a bit bland – fast.

This intersects with the fact that characters can’t touch. In TSO, the non-verbal was a vital part of play – I realize that even more now. It was eminently satisfying to hug my friend’s avatar when I saw her, or entertain ourselves with a truly interactive disco dance. In WoW, you can dance, but it’s basically next to someone’s avatar, and the best you can do is make text appear on the screen: “ Lantanayew dances with Kleptonius.” Not so satisfying.

So social interaction in WoW is hollow to me, in a way. I found myself wishing we could just plop our characters somewhere and chat for a while – which, to be fair, did happen occasionally, but felt awkward – wasteful? – to the veterans, I think. M. in fact, said to me at some point, in voice chat (alone, as it happened), “I haven’t leveled this character at all, I keep getting distracted by just socializing with you every time you’re on” Interestingly, I think this started to feel weird to him, as he announced the other night that he wasn’t going to level anymore characters and just do his thing with his high-level one (they have some plan of gaining reputation and getting something or other in reward – no idea what it is). I was a bit shocked/disappointed, as that power leveling was really about me and J. in may ways. It felt like a rebuff. M. did add later, “but…. I will help you ladies out if you need it,” which kind of made it okay again for him to do those runs he had just disavowed for us.

A note on chatting privately.
One thing that I have noticed is a difference between what we say in voice chat, in group/guild chat, and private chat (“whispers” or in game slang: “tells”). In my flirtation with M., for example, while in a Vent group, we were flirty and racy. When later we played alone, our voice chat was suddenly completely devoid of those flirtatious overtones. It was very funny at times – Ren and Stimpy jokes, for example – but not at all sexual. The lack was notable because of its stark contrast to our interaction merely 30 minutes earlier. But in a few private text exchanges, that innuendo was still there. We were talking comfortably in a private voice chat, but only able to flirt, now, in text. Interesting! Why was this, I wonder?

In part, it felt too intimate to flirt in voice without others present. The stakes had risen in some sense – it would have been a bit more serious. Interestingly, if we had been talking in some corner of a typical party in person, I don’t think that would have been true, but with just these two disembodied voices on the headsets… well, murmuring in 4 people’s ears at once is one thing, but to someone individually, privately, it was just too intense. And not something either of us married parents was really wanting to do. So private text chat had some minimal game-play comments and several – but rare – racy comments. The private chat lines were not frequent at all – because one has to stop game play to do so – but they were able to be more intimate because, I think, we didn’t have to navigate all the vocal cues and implications they bring. The text could be interpreted as humorous and light, while the same words in voice would be…. startling and far too suggestive.

My private chats with J. are often “real world” related. I mentioned being sad I hadn’t lost much weight the previous week, she mentioned being frustrated at the move away from her other character, I asked her how long she would play, etc. We have almost no game-related chat privately – there wasn’t much point.

Periodically someone on voice chat will comment on another player’s vocal words by sending a private text. Two nights ago, “Pyrez” was making really inappropriate comments about race and the like. Everyone was silent – even M., who makes a few such comments on occasion. Pyrez was simply taking it too far. At some point M. whispered to me, “oooookay. whatever” in response to Pyrez’s drivel.

Interestingly, J. rarely makes such private comments. I know she’s thinking what I’m thinking, but maybe because she knows that, too, or maybe cause she’s here in part for ethnographic research, she doesn’t feel the need to make the side comments. I admire that – it’s hard to retain what little distance one has when you get involved in commenting on people’s behavior to a friend.

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