Virtual Voice

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.

Outside the context of self-policed, dedicated role-playing servers, this may be impossible to “fix”. I put “fix” in quotes because it’s unclear that this is a problem of any real significance — it’s quite possible that the majority of potential players really don’t miss the opportunity to role-play more deeply, even in the “perfect” environment for it. But my gut tells me that, at a bare minimum, there’s room for something more than what’s available today.

And given that, I just don’t understand why better voice-masking technology hasn’t found its way into MMORPGs yet. I know it’s complicated, but I refuse to believe it’s impossible to create efficient software that makes a 10-year old girl sound like an orc (or a 30-year old man sound like a female elf, for that matter.) And I have to believe that such software would not only be extremely popular in MMORPGs, but in many online virtual environments. The benefits:

  • Greatly enhances role-playing.
  • Eliminates “I hate the sound of my own voice on the answering machine” syndrome.
  • Greatly reduces shyness. (Voice chat is far more intimate than text chat. There’s a reason most non-hardcore gamers still don’t indulge in much voice chat with strangers online, and that voice-chat is less popular in more reserved cultures.)

Many people are wondering what will define “the next World of Warcraft“. It would be egotistical at best to imply that I hold the answers to that question — I certainly don’t. But if I had to take a wild guess, I’d say there’s a decent chance that the next WoW will offer:

  1. Significantly better integration of user-generated content. (A virtual world is really not much of a world at all if its inhabitants can’t change it. And virtual worlds are growing too large for even the best-funded dev team to populate with content.) And/or,
  2. Better and more numerous opportunities for users to express themselves. That brings me back to user-generated content, but it also brings me back to my original point — the most basic form of self-expression — direct communication. Virtual voice.

And yeah, I really want to sound like an ancient dragon. Or an English-speaking cave serpent. So sue me.

PS. My friend Tom Cadwell raises an excellent point: it’s unclear what the ethical, legal, and PR implications of virtual-voice technology would be if it were used, for example, by sexual predators to more effectively prey on children. I haven’t immediately thought of a great response to this; I can only ask “where do you draw the line?” Should we shut down MySpace because it makes life easier for some deviants? Eliminate webcams? This is a far larger debate.

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