Voice Chat and Race in WoW

I find these articles on Wired by Clive Thompson to be really fascinating. First, I read the article on voice chat in online games. As I’ve mentioned previously, I play World of Warcraft. I have certainly been in groups and guilds where they requested that I download Ventrilo or Teamspeak and use that to communicate over voice chat instead of typing. I always, always resist this, and I found this article interesting, to see that I am not alone. Until a few months ago, I did not play as a serious role-playing character on a role-play server, but I always found immersion into the game world to be important, and I feel that voice chat really takes me out of that. Not only that, but I know that one of the reasons I resist is because I like the anonymity of text chat. Thompson writes:

I had just experienced the latest culture-shock in online worlds: The advent of voice. Games that were governed by text are now being governed by chat, and it is subtly changing the feel of our virtual universe.

There are good reasons why so many multiplayer online games are launching with voice-chat software. Partly it’s to welcome newbies, who often find that old-school text-chat is simply too complicated. Also, voice chat makes pell-mell action easier to handle: If you’re running a guild raid with 50 people, it’s much easier to bark orders than to type them out (which is why voice chat has long been popular on first-person shooters on Xbox Live).

But many players are now discovering that voice tweaks the social environment — and sometimes kills off part of what made their favorite world so much fun.

After all, one of the great things about virtual worlds was that they were, well, virtual. You could adopt a brand-new persona, and leave your dull, dreary existence behind. Outside are the suburbs and your shift at Chick-fil-A; online is a land of snowcapped mountains where you sit astride a cat-like mount, while stars rain around you.

This lovely shift in identity was true even if you weren’t a hard-core “role player.” When I log on to World of Warcraft, I don’t try to seriously pretend I’m a medieval person. I happily text-chat with fellow players about 21st century stuff like music, Lost, our jobs. But somehow this social activity never breaks the “magic circle” of the game, the sense that we’re in a different place with different rules. Maybe it’s because text-chat is inherently abstract; it’s something that happens in our heads, in a sort of ludological backchannel of our minds.

He really hits this on the head for me. For one, I am a 23 year old female, and I know that when I speak on voice chat it becomes clear. Even though I play female characters, since many males play females avatars as well, people don’t always assume I am really female. In addition I could be middle-aged, or a kid, or something else that’s not as sexy. Now I’m not saying I have a sexy voice, but I usually feel more comfortable in this online male dominated world without sharing the details of my person and personality that voice chat shares. Apparently I’m not alone in this feeling:

This is particularly a problem for women, because often women thrive in MMOs precisely by downplaying their sexual identity. When Krista-Lee Malone, a student at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, did a study of the impact of voice chat on online worlds, women all told her they were treated differently once other players — particularly younger men — could hear their voices. (“They got hit on a lot,” Malone says.)

Nowadays, I also seriously role-play, so to me voice chat is out of the question unless everyone wants to stay in character over chat. But another reason that I know I resist is because of my own biases. I am such an extreme liberal, and one of the problem with everyday chat instead of only RP (role-play) chat in the game is that discussion often turns to elements of pop culture or politics that I don’t want to discuss with these random people. It’s often challenging for me, and since World of Warcraft is supposed to be a leisure time activity, I don’t want that discussion in there. When we add voice chat, all of a sudden issues are added: I can tell if the person is from the south, or it turns out that it wasn’t just typos but poor English (which doesn’t bother me from foreigners but does somewhat, I admit, from American-born adults, since it implies lack of education). Now, I have family from the south, so I’m not particularly biased against people from that region of the country. As a complete leftist, as a person more liberal than most democrats, I worry that the likelihood that such a person will have politics and beliefs that I not only disagree with but am infuriated by (because I see them as causing unnecessary pain and difficulty for so many people), is a bit high. So I’d rather not know what part of the country you are from, wheter you are a college student, a well-educated career person, or a member of the military. In the article, Thompson mentions how so much identity is shared by the addition of voice:

But voice has much higher emotional bandwidth. It conveys a lot of identity: Your voice instantly transmits your age, your gender and often your nationality — even your regional location too. (I can tell a Texan accent from a Minnesotan, and you can probably tell I’m Canadian by my nasal “oots.”) With voice, the real world is honking in your ear.

I have more to write about the article on voice and race in fantasy games, but I need to run to go babysit this morning. Sorry about the lack of conclusion to my discussion!

Ok, I’m back. I posted this already this morning, but I’d like to add to it, and I changed a bit of my last paragraph to better clarify what I feel about this.

So I sometimes don’t like to admit that I have my own biases, particularly against conservatives in America, and religious believers. I do my best to temper them, because I know some conservatives and religious believers who are good people – in fact almost all of them are at least motivated by the desire to do good, but in my mind, they just get it so plain wrong that it’s hard not to fault them for not seeing the pain they are causing to people who are different from them.

The same author, Clive Thompson, also wrote an article on race in virtual worlds. It’s a pretty interesting article, and I have one comment on my own instinctive feeling about race in World of Warcraft, and pretty much all the other fantasy worlds. This thought sums it up: “Humans? Ugh.” I had always explained it as the idea that if I’m going to be in a fantasy world, why would I want to be a race I already am when I could pretend to be a cute little gnome or an ethnically interesting troll, a noble orc or an nature-loving night elf?

Thompson writes:

Except that races inside games often seem to reflect, in a creepy way, some of our most regrettable biases about race in real life. For example, when World of Warcraft first came out, players were amused, stunned or both to discover that the evil trolls spoke in … Jamaican accents. Aaron Delwiche, a game academic at Trinity University, asked his student Beth Cox to analyze all the “emotes” in World of Warcraft — the spoken greetings or hand gestures Blizzard pre-programmed into each race. She found that Trolls were “disproportionately more likely to make violent or sexual statements,” Delwiche notes. (Some of their sentences were even scripted in Ebonics: “You going to axe me out?” says the female Troll when you hit the “flirt” command.) In the same way, the “good” alliance characters tended to employ Western, Christian-like symbols, while the evil horde had totems and shamanistic magic. “Clearly, there’s something interesting happening there, and it’s not just coincidence,” Delwiche adds.

There’s evidence, too, that players bring their own racial biases into the game. When Nick Yee, a game academic at Stanford University, polled World of Warcraft players in 2005, he found that while there were nine possible races to choose from, a significant majority — more than half of women and almost half of men — chose to play as the two most “white-looking” and “pretty” races in the game: Humans and elves.

This is interesting to me for two reasons. One is that the trolls’Jamaican accents seemed fun and natural to me, because trolls (In Tolkien-esque worlds) are from tropical jungles, and I associate a Jamaican accent with being from a warm place. The bigger thing though is that it’s made me realize that perhaps my instinctual dislike of human characters in the fantasy world is related to my repugnance of many aspects of Western culture. I see humans more as greedy than noble, and I’d rather be a gnome. At least they are good at science.


One thought on “Voice Chat and Race in WoW

  1. I play WoW also and would resist voice chat. I am 52 years old, female, and until I have a chance to get to know someone not discussing my personal beliefs with them.

    I do choose gray hair on my avatar, and a female one since my daughter was distrubed that I played a male. Lost track of what I was trying to communicate.

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