Thursday, May 19, 2011

Quiet Practicality: Non-verbal Communication's Mechanical Strenghts

My latest PopMatters article is about the benefits of non-verbal communication in multiplayer games.

Maybe I just like to make things more complicated than they need to be, but I really enjoy symbolic or gestural communication between players. Don't get me wrong: voice chat is great, but its immediacy often overshadows other clever, artistic ways of communicating. For those designers chasing the holy grail of "immersion," getting rid of contemporary human voices can augment the in-game world. On the technical side, non-verbal communication can circumvent issues caused by hardware or network problems

Unfortunately, I had to cut myself off before getting into the cultural and accessibility benefits of symbolic communication systems. For folks with speech disorders, relying on voice chat is simply untenable. Non-verbal communication can work as an inclusive tool and put everyone on equal footing. While I honestly believe that most players are well-intentioned, harassment and discrimination is an unpleasant reality in on-line games. In games that don't rely on voice chat, it's more difficult to ascertain a player's gender, ethnicity, or nationality, which can help sidestep prejudice. Of course, simply muting everyone isn't the best long-term solution to addressing on-line bigotry; education and tolerance are the ultimate goals. In the short term though, silence can offer safety, or at least a respite.

However, that's an essay for another day. This piece is about appreciating both the utility and creativity non-verbal communication offers. Video games are primarily a visual medium, so it shouldn't surprising that, when it comes to expressing ourselves in games, a picture can be worth a thousand words.

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