voice in virtual worlds

Nothing heats up passions like voice communication in virtual worlds. Linden Labs’ recent blog post announcing that it’s bringing integrated voice communication to Second Life generated 527 comments. The next day Terra Nova had a post entitled “The inevitability of voice.” That post has generated 132 comments. Those comments include a debate about whether more communication is better than less. Because more words don’t necessarily mean more communication, but silencing a person is sure to suppress communication, I’m happy to be able to choose not to discuss that debate.

Voice communication has obvious value over text for coordinating rapid manual action in a group. Parties on quests and in combat in virtual worlds already use voice tools such as Roger Wilco, Teamspeak, and Ventrilo.

Dmitri Williams’ research on the effects of adding voice communication to communication capabilities in World of Warcraft found:

Players who use voice come to like each other more and become closer. Compared to a text-only control group, they develop higher levels of trust, liking and happiness, and lower levels of loneliness. So, with all due respect to the magic circle, it’s clearly worth breaking.

He discusses these findings with respect to the effects of self-disclosure on inter-personal relations:

In the end, those who disclose more about themselves (i.e. take that risk) get more in return, I think. They are less lonely. McKenna and Bargh found that about 5 years ago, and I think it fits the voice data as well: self disclosure leads to a deeper series of ties between people, even online. It’s more information and it’s more human and engaging, capitalizing on the sensory and interpersonal tools that we have evolved over millenia.

It’ll be really interesting to watch as people create and manage opt-in and opt-out and masking tools to mediate their levels of exposure. They’re essentially saying how much of themselves they want to reveal with their choices. And, the data from my one study and the McKenna and Bargh and others, generally suggest that those people who take the richer media and use it will probably fare the best, socially and emotionally. McKenna actually found that this effect transcended how shy people were, i.e. the shy people who took the leap of faith thrived, and the extroverts who didn’t started having losses.

In research on interpersonal relations, self-disclosure typically has been understood within an information transfer model — how much personal information you disclose to another. Both voice and text are low-cost means for disclosing age, sex, location, community of expression, and similar information.

Voice and text differ in the balance of costs for information processing when persons care about such information transfer and have different objectives with respect to it. In voice communication, obscuring or faking age, sex, or accent requires a lot of work, while much information about these attributes typically can be extracted at low cost. The opposite is true with text communication. Voice and text have significantly different default costs positions for certain types of information objectives.

Relationship-specific self-disclosure of information that makes a person vulnerable can strengthen a relationship by increasing the recognized cost of terminating the relationship. Truthful disclosure of age, sex, and location might have some relation to general aspects of personal vulnerability. But to the extent that disclosure of that information is associated with the use of voice, the disclosure isn’t relationship-specific and doesn’t effect the cost of breaking the relationship.

Most text communication in virtual worlds doesn’t seem to involve a high investment in determining the scope of information transfer:

Real-time communication in modern MMORPGs is a funny thing. With rare exception, it tends to resemble anything but “role-playing”. MMO user text generally consists of acronyms (LOL, ROFL, etc), poor grammar, and a million little references to the outside world (”hang on, my dog is barking.”) Speech is, in some ways, even worse — nothing like the screech of a petulant 10-year-old (or the sound of a toilet flushing in the background) to disturb the illusion of fantasy.

Moreover, most virtual world participants probably don’t have conflicting objectives with respect to information transfer. Play and let be! Nonetheless, virtual world participants seem to care about biological attributes of their co-participants:

The evolutionary psych crowd seems to have it right. The functions of voice occur for humans in this order: Are they really human? What is their gender? Are they intelligent? and Do I like them? In other words, ASL [age, sex, location] isn’t too far off, and appears to be driven by biology first, then moderated by medium.

That’s not a matter of self-disclosure, understood as relationship-specific information transfer. The way persons use voice in virtual worlds seems to me to be evidence of the human nature of making sense of presence.

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