Freedom of epithets

ventI’ve been spending more time on Vent recently, which is great fun. It is there, in the voice chat, where it seems where people get to know one another, enjoy each others’ company, and where far more “real” relationships are formed. There is much about voice that makes that mode of communication so much more entertaining. Different than a phone, Vent allows others’ voices to fill your ears – truly sound as though they are standing right beside you. The phone, in contrast, is tinny, distant, and hard to hear. On Vent, you’re in a group of talkers, not just one-on-one, and so you get that lively group exchange that can be so much fun.

Vent is crucial to getting to know people in WoW because you can talk without interrupting game play. Last night while running some Northrend instances on Normal (not heroic, therefore quite easy), I was doing a decent amount of typing while I fought. I didn’t do too well, heh.

Using Vent allows players to chat, coordinate, joke, etc. without interrupting the buttons they have to smash to kill the baddies. Relying on text chat only generally means you won’t have longer conversations, unless you literally set your toon aside to type. So most players have limited exchanges in text, and save the real conversation for the Vent channel (which is among a group, mostly, not one-on-one).

Vent conversation develops its own culture and style. In my old guild/Vent, the tone was rather light, included the occasionally dance music jam session, and was quite flirty, especially at night. No minors allowed in there, that’s for sure. Swear words are one thing, but racy talk is something else in my book.

In ToH, Vent is frequently a place to… um, vent. Lots of swearing and flinging insults and ranting about “stupid people.” The latter can be the folks in the latest PUG used to run a short raid, or it can be people who liked a certain movie, or who leave their socks on the floor. Vent is a safe space, it seems, to let all those frustrations out.

What makes that space safe? How does that particular culture of conversation style develop?

L., one of the guildies I chat with frequently, suggested that for some of these folks, much of their key social development years have been spent embedded in this gaming culture online. Many started playing online games in their early teens, and the epithet-full bitching sessions (both good-natured and not as much so) are then necessarily part of their social patterns. L. suggested that space has a kind of safety because the consequences of insults, clashes, and anger are significantly less than in person: without the body language, potential for flying fists, angry glares, etc., the social sanctions around those clashes are perhaps less powerful, less painful, or less significant. It’s easier to call someone horrific names in one breath and be over it in the next in there.

Folks like Walther (1992) point out that very intimate information and relationships can clearly form even in text-only conversation, but I agree with L. that in this space it does seem somehow more acceptable – and less threatening – to blow up at someone than it might be in person. Things that for me would definitely make me cranky later don’t seem to stick among these guys. They say it, respond to it, and move on. No long term effects of that particular insult, even when it’s personal and cutting.

Interestingly, for me, that space doesn’t feel as safe as it seems to for the younger guild members. I am keenly aware of the social/emotional risk in that extreme name-calling – I translate it more, I think, into what such exchanges would be like in person. I also wonder if this is a gender thing (a la boys insulting each other in the locker room), although L. seems to feel the same way I do. He’s not uncomfortable or surprised (as ex-Navy, he’s heard it all, I’m sure), but his style there is different.

Of course, part of this is that these folks know each other far better than I know them. I’ve been here a few months, they’ve been playing together for years. But still, I wonder if spending so many formative years in this disembodied space encourages a different approach to conversation for them.

The most powerful reason this stands out to me personally is that I don’t feel as though I hear these kinds of exchanges in person around guys. Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve been in an offline social space with a group of guys in their early 20s, but still. I’m pretty sure that when a woman is there in person, the conversation style usually changes among guys. This is, in short, an unfamiliar exchange outside this online context for me.

(I kind of feel sometimes as though I’m a fly on the wall, secretly getting the inside scoop on what guys are like when girls aren’t around. Of course, I am around, but they don’t seem to edit, or adjust as much as I feel they might in person. Who knows, though.)

So I wonder. Is spending so much social time in Vent and online affecting the general social skills people develop? The causal arrow is surely muddy, here – liking that type of talk leads folks to spend time there, and/or spending time there increases the use of that type of talk. But I wonder about all those in-person moments that teach us about people. Did I get more of those than these guys? Does it matter? Do the flying epithets translate to in-person groups? To mixed gender offline groups? For those who learn about people from an early age in places like WoW (“digital natives” they’re often called), is it harder to navigate social groups comfortably in person?

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3 responses to “Freedom of epithets

  1. Guy friends often do rib each other and call each other names in private, or within their own clique, but when mixed with outsiders, will be more subdued. When I go to a friends house to play cards, names like bitch, asshole, jerkwad, often fly fast and furious.

    They are tender insults, with no heat behind them, however an outsider may hear them and wonder why we are such jerks to each other, and how we can put up with such insults.

    As and officer in my guild, I’ve gotten several whispers from newish members asking why so and so was being so mean to another person. I have to whisper back that they’re good friends, and are just tossing friendly insults around. So Vent may blur the line between the private behavior and the public behavior.

  2. ooo very interesting insight, Copernicus! indeed, it does feel intuitively to me that there is a belnding between that public and private behaviour. Interestingly, as I get to know them better, and am, essentially, noticed more within Vent and the guild, there seems to be a subtle shift there…. hm.

  3. I’ve noticed that some people don’t even consider chat to be a “social” activity at all. They are the kind of people which feel the game is for them and all people are NPCs. Our leveling guild has a few of these kinds. Recently we’ve had a couple new recruits who randomly type weird single in gchat like “wtf” “no” or “go away”. They never respond to people reaching out to talk with them, in general they are obnoxious. Some people have to ability to socialize with other and choose not to on mmo’s, the people are just not real to them.

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