Listening to Other Players and Evolving the Chat Box

A new blogger in the community, Simcha, has brought us all a fresh perspective on one aspect of gaming that many of us are able to take for granted: hearing. Reading her articles for the past month has kept this topic on my mind. Until I met her, I didn’t realize how much games are designed for the hearing and how difficult it is for signers.

I try to imagine gaming without sound. No game soundtracks. No sound effects. No ambient clues that I can pick up by just listening. No voices. In my experience – and that’s the key, this is my personal experience – gaming wouldn’t be the same if I lost my hearing tomorrow.

One of the biggest evolutions in how we play games is voice communications. Communication is literally the root word of community and without the former you can’t have the latter. This is especially true for MMOs, but crosses all genres and platforms. Listening to other players has become something that we all count on when we login to a multiplayer game. It’s hard to imagine today’s games without access to voice, even though I don’t personally always prefer it. What were gamers doing before the advent of voice chat?

In MMOs, we used the chat box like communications experts. No raid leader was without a macro manual, a list of commands and information they could bark off with the press of a single button. Remember in World of Warcraft how there was literally a macro interface with little icons that stored large chunks of text for you? I believe this feature still exists, but addons as well as other interface improvements have made this less visible and voice has made it less necessary. My fear is that as voice chat has become more popular, development of non-voice communications tools gets neglected. Instead, they should be getting even more powerful, especially as gamers come in all varieties and abilities.

Chat boxes of old also had other customization options, like changing the colors, fonts, sizes and allowing players to create custom chat rooms. Items in game could be linked in the chat for easily sharing your latest treasure. Then there were addons like CT Raid and Boss Mods that would read data from game encounters and automatically announce text warnings to everyone. Of course these mods still exist, but not because they’re crucial for player communication. These days, players are expected to use voice chat when grouped, no matter how mundane the experience. And generally speaking, if a dungeon doesn’t require voice chat, players also tend to not use the chat box either. So in some ways voice chat has spoiled us and removed the chat box from our list of communications options. Players use it, but only when they really need to, instead of using it to be social.

In fact, in the MMOs I’ve played the past year, chat is fairly empty except for spammers, scammers, and guild recruiting bots. Players don’t use the chat very much to communicate, not even for trading (so long as there’s an auction house). By and large, the people we want to talk to are in our guilds or hanging out on ventrilo even when not in game. For tools like Steam, players are always idling on our friends list but at least in my case, half of them never chat for any reason. It’s as though players are just part of the ambiance of being online, like NPCs or like having a TV running in the background when we’re not watching because it’s comforting. We want to see players there but we don’t care about talking to them so much, especially if it requires us to type.

I never realized how much voice chat had done to enter our non-digital lives and kill some of the magic of being online with strangers who shared your fantasies. If you have a hearing disability, voice chat has significantly changed the kind of content you can enjoy with other players. In some cases, it seems to have ruined the MMO experience entirely.

I can’t remember the last time I was in a guild that didn’t require voice chat. By 2006 Teamspeak was considered mandatory for raiding guilds. What if you couldn’t hear and suddenly people you’ve enjoyed the game with were excluding you because …well, they want to use voice chat because it’s easier for them?

But that brings up another interesting side of the communications issue: Typing. How many friends do you remember from back in the day who were painfully slow in chat? Or who perhaps could not type at all due to a physical disability? We take for granted typing skills, and I look back now and realize not everyone was a good or able typist. The expectation that players can type underlies the entire design of the chat box, and weakens it as a tool for easy communication since it requires efficiency to be useful. Today, you don’t have to be a typist if you can talk and hear. How many gamers are relieved they don’t have to type because they simply don’t have the skill to keep up with a conversation in a text box? I imagine quite a few.

It all seems to boil down to communication skills games assume we have, when they probably shouldn’t. Yet even as a gamer it’s so very easy for me to not realize how lucky I am to be able to communicate in many different ways efficiently. How much more so do developers forget that their players are having real issues communicating with one another? How many times do you imagine they go over their design document solving problems with the chat box? This probably never even comes up. It’s more likely that it’s an assumed feature. There will be a chat box as the default communications method, with no regard for player ability.

Even with the advent of motion sensors like Kinect, developers seem to be looking right past technical solutions which have been with us for decades now. Why don’t our games have voice to text features? Why don’t those which come with voice chat have text to voice?

Why aren’t motion detectors being used for reading sign-language which can then be input to text or voice?

I talked to Simcha about this and asked what were her thoughts on the text to voice features of Mumble, Teamspeak, and Ventrilo. She said one of the worst parts is that the voices all sound like robots. They’re not very human friendly and can be unsettling. Add to that the fact that she has to tab in and out of game to use the tool and we have a recipe for horrible usability. On the one hand, it’s clear some engineers are thinking about the problems, but on the other I wonder how often Mumble has sat in a room with game developers and talked to them about how to better integrate those tools so that their players can communicate. I imagine that’s probably never happened, at least not in regards to solving communications problems. I doubt either party has thought about communications tools for their physically disabled players.

So we have quite a few technical solutions readily available, but which a hearing world doesn’t think to work on because it’s not a problem for us. And it’s all because of people like me, who aren’t concerned about anything that doesn’t directly impact us. I can hear and type just fine. Why would I be thinking about solutions for the deaf or disabled? Well there are a few reasons a game developer would want to. For starters, even if there’s just one deaf gamer in your audience, don’t you want them to enjoy the experience? Do you want them to be isolated from the rest of the players? Then put some tools in your game to assist them.

And how about building a community around your game. Sending the message that your game is interested in being usable by as many kinds of players as possible will go a long way to helping you research solutions. Note the emphasis on many kinds of players. We don’t have to cater to the widest audience possible, just the most diverse audience possible. Engineering solutions to these problems is what makes our work valuable. Doing the same thing the last game did means engineering the same problems it did without solving them.

One could argue that if were an engineer (programmer, game developer, etc) it’s my job to think about these things. It’s clear these technologies have been brought up piecemeal here and there by different studios with different purposes, but it’s not clear there’s been active research on how to make the most of them. There’s old technology that’s been in our games for years which acknowledge that not everyone can hear or type well. Games have closed captions. In some cases, games have settings for the color blind. Many online games offer voice chat and those tools also sometimes have text to voice. Someone has thought about these things, but no one has put them together into a robust suite of communications tools to add to their games. Motion detectors and cameras are a goldmine for the developer who can make it work for signers. There’s just pieces everywhere and no developer interest in revolutionizing the chat box. It’s 2014 and the chat box is the same as it was in 1990.

The next time you’re in a game and someone insists on voice chat, think about how many other gamers can never hear you but who want to play. Then ask your favorite developers to do better so you can have more gamers to play with.