Online Gaming: Anonymous Communication
“Drink pots if you got ‘em [sic]. I’m down to echoes and having trouble keeping the tank healed.” The previous statement was recorded during a session of Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO), a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMO). Each of the words in the statement is a recognizable term in English, though the usage is not customary. Each segment of society has its own language and jargon for the world around it. Online gaming is no exception, and while some terms, such as “tank” are common across an entire genre (MMOs), others like “echoes” are specific to one game or another. Language, however, is not only about the words that are used, but a number of details, some more subtle than others, which provides the context necessary to understand a particular utterance. With the understanding that not all potential readers readily understand gaming terminology, and to minimize the amount of space spent in explanation of terms, each highlighted term is explained in the Glossary of Terms prior to the Reference page. By analyzing several hours of communication taking place within the contexts of two very different video games, one can discover the differences and similarities between the languages of each of the games and the general population.
What are the patterns of speech within a competitive, anonymous environment? How do they differ from normal patterns of speech when the participants know one another? How do they compare to a semi-anonymous environment where identity is tied to the in-game avatar, or character, rather than the person sitting at the keyboard? Does the removal of identity lead to increased aggression and unfriendliness? What specific statements, terminology, and contextual clues are given to coordinate actions within the game? What differences between the two groups of gamers can explain the difference in language?
A surprising number of studies have been done on the effects of electronic communication compared to face-to-face communication, such as Chester and Gwynne’s explanation of students participating in online classrooms having more confidence to ask questions both in the classroom and in a later face-to-face meeting (Chester & Gwynne, 1998; Warschauer, 1996; Wilson & Peterson, 2002). There have also been a very few compilations and analyses of the “lingo” or gaming, including the high use of contextualization to provide a large amount of communicative information in a very short time (Bray, 2003; Keating & Sunakawa, 2010). There have been significantly fewer dealing with online gaming and the tendencies that arise from the relative anonymity of the speaker.
Video games, particularly online games, are becoming more and more popular. A 2009 study showed that over 35% of adults and 78% of teenagers play video games online (Keating & Sunakawa, 2010). It has been predicted that games will become the predominant art form of the twenty-first century as films were for the twentieth (Bray, 2003). As games pervade reality, the language used within the games may trickle into everyday life. Coupled with the realization that most of today’s teenagers are growing up with this style of language, it is a subject that needs further investigation and analysis.
To aid in comparison, two different games were chosen to analyze. The first, Call of Duty: Black Ops II is a first-person shooter (FPS) observed through the Xbox 360 console. The game is marketed towards, and mostly populated by, young males mostly from ages 15-24 (SodaHead Gaming, 2012).The online component of the game involves player versus player (PvP) combat, with each player on a team attempting to shoot, blow up, or otherwise kill the players on the opposing team(s). Once killed, with the exception of particular game modes, a player has a short wait time before respawning and being able to take another character to battle. Although the players are on teams, the game is highly competitive, with many statistics displayed on a leaderboard at the end of each match. As such, each player is competing against his opponents and his teammates to achieve the highest personal score. Players first enter a lobby until there are enough players to start the match. The matches take place within a random collection of “maps,” each with particular layouts and landmarks, providing knowledgeable players the opportunity to create strategies specific to each game objective and map.
Use of headsets is optional, and less than half of all observed players had icons indicating that their headsets were plugged in. Of those whose icons indicated that headsets were in use, only a few spoke often, most speaking only intermittently when deemed appropriate, and some did not actually speak at all. In this game, identity is based solely on the information available visually through the GamerTag and the emblems that are player-created.
Ten matches were part of the analysis. Eight were objective based “Domination” games, in which players gain points by killing opponents and by gathering at pre-designated flags to “capture” a location. The other two were “Hardcore Team Deathmatch,” a non-objective based team versus team battle with limited information available to the player and the ability for stray bullets to kill teammates. Each match consisted of two to three five-minute rounds.
The second game is Dungeons & Dragons Online, an MMO played on PC. In particular, to achieve maximum contrast between the two games, the observation took place within a guild of players called Mortal Voyage Permadeath Guild (MV) in which each player agrees to follow a set of rules specific to that group, including the deletion of any character that dies. This game is also played primarily by males, but the average MV player is as much as twenty years older than the average Call of Duty player. The game is played only online and while there is a PvP element, it is entirely optional and was not part of this evaluation. The vast majority of gameplay is in a player versus environment (PvE) setting, pitting groups of players against a dungeon with traps and monsters controlled through artificial intelligence (AI). The game itself, particularly in MV, is highly cooperative. The death of a character means the permanent deletion of the character, his experience, his loot, and the time the player spent building the character to that point. To that end, emphasis is placed on cooperative play, ensuring the best chance for all characters to survive the trials. There is a leaderboard stating the number of enemies each player killed, but it is only available to view if the player chooses to view it. Instead, each player has a role designated by his class, so while a group of six players may take on a dungeon together, perhaps one is the “healer,” one the “trapsmith” leaving only four players actually responsible for dispatching the enemies. Players enter the game in “city zones” which have no danger or monsters, which functions much like a lobby, allowing players to determine who to group with and what quest should be performed. Quests are the equivalent of matches- self-contained maps containing the objectives and monsters. MV has a strict “no-spoiling” rule which prohibits the use of previous knowledge to set up strategies, but the ample visual and audible cues given by the game reward observant and knowledgeable players with information that can be used to warn others of impending danger.
MV requires that all players be able to hear the spoken words of other players, even if they choose not to communicate verbally. MV maintains an online discussion forum separate from the game where tactics and strategies can be discussed and players can become more accustomed to one another. Very few of the players use their real names or divulge much personal information about themselves, but nearly all participate in the forums and have a common “naming convention” so that each of a player’s many characters can be recognized as being played by the same player. In this way, a separate identity is forged, providing a semi-anonymous situation where friendships can be forged with long periods of play, even if the person behind the screen is only known by a naming convention rather than a real name.
To provide an equivalent amount of gameplay, three sessions totaling two and a half hours of play, were recorded for analysis. The quests involved varied in length, difficulty, and number of players involved. In particular, two quests were relatively easy with little chance of character death while one was a very difficult and lengthy quest of higher level that regularly causes character death, and did in fact claim the life of one of the characters involved.
Setting/Situation. The “place in which the conversation is occurring,” can be described both physically and virtually (Ottenheimer, 2013, p. 164). Physically, players of both games are usually seated in front of a computer monitor or television, in their homes. Virtually, the places were the battlefields of Call of Duty, with loud gunfire and explosions in the background, and an AI narrator that announced when particular objectives were met or special weapons were deployed by either team. In DDO, the places included indoor dungeons and outdoor areas populated by monsters and magic, with a Dungeon Master only narrating special occurrences. Generally speaking, Call of Duty is a much louder game than DDO, requiring more volume to overcome the background noise and chatter to relay the pertinent information. On the other hand, there is a considerable amount of time in DDO where the only noise is quiet background music, and conversation can be held at normal volume.
Participants. “Participant refers to who can or should be involved in various speech events or conversations and what is expected of the various individuals” (Ottenheimer, 2013, p. 165). In each occasion, the participants were the players controlling the characters within the game. Once, a conversation was overheard by other players when one spoke to a non-player without removing his headset in Call of Duty, but the expectation is that a player will mute his microphone if he will speak to someone outside of the game itself. In this case, the player called out, “Honey, grab me another soda on your way!” The player was clearly requesting a drink from someone outside the game, but two other players responded with, “Yeah, grab me one, too!” and “Don’t call me honey!” emphasizing the expectation that conversation inside the game should be restricted to participants inside the game.
Ends. Conversation takes place for a reason, and “the reasons for which the speech event is taking place, or the goals that people have” are called “ends” (Ottenheimer, 2013, p.167). While the previous sections were easily navigated with generalizations, the ends of players tend to be more varied. Some, in both games, are to enhance strategy and overcome obstacles. For instance, a common statement in Call of Duty calls other players’ attentions to a particular landmark where an enemy is hiding, or camping, so that other players can help corner and kill him. Similarly, in DDO, one of the first things a person will announce in combat is whether they see a “caster” so that all players can take the appropriate action. However, this is not always the case. In one particular instance of Call of Duty, a player became frustrated with the perceived poor play of his teammates and went on an expletive-filled tirade about his teammates’ lack of skills. In this case, his ends included belittling his teammates, possibly to make himself feel better about the eventual team loss. Conversely, there is very little belittling or negative conversation within the ranks of MV. If a player wants to comment negatively on another player’s skill or decisions, it is usually in the form of constructive criticism, teaching the player new tactics to prevent the previous bad play. There are other conversations within MV that were not heard during the Call of Duty matches- those whose ends were camaraderie. After explaining the reason for recording DDO sessions, many players continued to engage in conversation about school, anthropology, college, and their experiences with language in gaming. Additionally, players would sometimes ask how one another’s children were doing, even though they had never met in person, showing that relationships can be built without knowing a person’s real name.
Act Sequence. The act sequence discusses the actual words used, how events transpire, and, generally speaking, the sequence of events during the communication (Ottenheimer, 2013). Online communities, in general, are egalitarian by default. When entering into a Call of Duty lobby, there is no “leader,” no indication of who might be rich or poor, a CEO or an unemployed guy living on his buddy’s couch. Several lobbies were entered, looking for one with enough headset icons to anticipate conversation, and even those with many players wearing headsets were silent. Generally speaking, however, all it takes is one person to break the silence, and other players will likely speak back. Sometimes this is in the form of a taunt, such as, “Y’all are going down next round.” Sometimes it is a person commenting on another’s emblem. There are no set rules for who should and should not speak, or in what order. In DDO, the difference between high level and low level quests is quite pronounced. Due to the repetitive nature of permadeath play, low-level quests tend to have a relaxed environment with casual conversation stopping abruptly when the action starts getting intense. A conversation about favorite football teams carried the group through one entire quest because the players knew there were no monsters and no tactics required for completion. There are no rules governing conversation here, either, besides the explicit no-spoiling rules of MV mentioned above. In higher level quests, however, there are some periods of time when the conversation relaxes, but most of it is spent in anticipation of the next event. In these occasions, the conversation is typically limited to what is happening on the screen at the time. A magic user may ask if buffs are running out, or a healer may ask for a moment to “top off red bars,” but generally, the only person speaking is the scout. A scout’s job is to sneak ahead into certain danger, find monsters and try to separate them from the others so that the other characters can methodically take them down one at a time. The scout uses generally accepted phrases and terms to explain what he is doing so that other players are aware of what is happening beyond their own line of sight. Some of these were repeated several times throughout the different quests, such as, “I’ve got a melee coming back with me, but there’s a caster in the back, so stay behind the corner.” The other players instantly understand the situation, knowing that soon they will have to bring their weapons to bear, but stay out of the caster’s line of sight so the characters are not spotted. Often the scout will suggest a tactic for taking out a group and pause. The pause is indication to the rest of the group that if anyone has a better idea, to speak up before the action is carried out. In a game where opening a door or chest can mean an enemy ambush, it is quite common to hear “Opening” stated before doing so, giving others a chance to prepare themselves for what may happen.
Key. Key refers to “the mood or spirit in which communication takes place.” Both games create a tense mood, waiting for action, or responding to the stimuli provide by the game. Generally speaking, in the Call of Duty games that were recorded, if one person started speaking in a mean-spirited manner, others would follow. Whether it was in retaliation or in agreement, one person’s swearing would open the door to others. In other Call of Duty games, the tone remained somewhat friendly, without the belittling or swearing. Another of MV’s rules, on the other hand, is to maintain a family-friendly atmosphere, including refraining from swearing. They generally keep everything in a friendly mood, with an informal tone.
Instrumentalities. This refers to the different channels used for conversation and the varieties of the language itself. In Call of Duty, the only channel used is verbal. The language is usually in the player’s local dialect of English, though some players do prefer to use another language. One recorded game had a player using a mixture of Spanish and English to insult other players. In DDO, the instrumentalities include vocal, which is only audible to other players in that person’s small group, a “party chat” text box also available only to players in the group, and a “guild chat” box for all members of the guild that are online. As mentioned above, they also maintain a guild forum for additional, asynchronous conversation. Some players exclusively speak through party chat for a variety of reasons, and at least two others do so at night specifically so they do not wake other members of their households. In one game session, one player was observed using both vocal and party chat for different reasons. Anything that others needed to know immediately was spoken, but during the tense moments when only the scout was expected to speak, added chat was performed through the text box so as not to interrupt or distract. Most players also use the text box to indicate which loot has been randomly assigned to them that they wish to offer to their teammates. All players in MV speak English in game, though there are widely varying accents and dialects. At least two players recorded were Canadian, and one Australian.
Norms. Norms are the “expectations, and the ideologies, that speakers have about appropriateness of speech” (Ottenheimer, 2013, p. 177). The norms of conversations have been discussed in each of the other appropriate sections as applicable.
Genres. Just as movies and games have genres, the genre of language refers to “different kinds of speech acts or events” (Ottenheimer, 2013, p. 178). It is difficult to classify any in-game conversational genres differently from normal out-of-game conversational genres. The same classifications exist in virtual reality as in reality, including jokes and announcements.
Any person who has ever played an online game such as Call of Duty or Halo knows the frequency with which people use foul or abusive language. As an avid gamer, I want to know whether the anonymity is the culprit, or if it is the style of game that is played. I have also been a member of a group of regular players in another game where we would get to know one another by our alias because of regular play together. I feel that this sort of quasi-anonymity removes much of the freedom to be rude because the relationships built in the game are persistent over time, unlike the highly random nature of Call of Duty. Beyond my personal interest, as Bray said, games will likely be the predominant art form of the 21st century as films were in the 20th, and we may see more and more of this style of communication leaking into everyday life (Bray, 2003).
The similarities between the languages seem to stem from the similarities between the games. Specifically, both feature similar settings, especially the physical settings of the players rather than the virtual settings of the characters, and both have similar participants. Both games feature violence, in that killing other players or AI-controlled monsters is a main component of completing objectives, though the violence is more cartoon in content in DDO and hyper-realistic in Call of Duty. The differences can also be linked to the differences between the games and the audience they attract. Call of Duty attracts a younger demographic and is highly competitive. It is full of loud noises that hamper casual conversation. The games that were analyzed were random single players teaming up against one another, anonymous except for GamerTag, and unlikely to ever meet in real life or play with each other again. In contrast, DDO’s Mortal Voyage Permadeath Guild is comprised of an older group and is highly cooperative. There are plenty of opportunities for casual conversation and camaraderie. Though the individuals behind the screens are anonymous, the aliases allow for continued relationships to be built as people group with the same players from week to week, month to month.
This lack of anonymity could be the biggest reason for respectful conversation compared to the obscenities of Call of Duty, but there are other differences that can also help explain the contrast. The rules that all MV players agree to play by include maintaining a family-friendly environment. The difference in what character death means also likely has an effect on team-building. In Call of Duty, death means a tally increase, points for the other team, and a short waiting period before respawning. Sometimes players will willingly sacrifice their characters to aid in the greater objective. In MV, it means permanent loss of all the work that had gone into building that character. Character survival is the top priority, and, while the danger and risk of death is the main draw of that style of gameplay, teams are allowed to back out of dangerous quests if they are outgunned. Overall, more research will be required to truly understand whether the anonymity is the reason for increased hostility in language or if it is some combination of game content, player inclination, and so on.
Glossary of Terms
Artificial Intelligence (AI)- the programming that is used for non-player characters such as monsters and quest givers. Often used in conversation to make a distinction between players and non-players.
Avatar- the in-game visual representation of a character. Generally, character or “toon” is used in conversation rather than “avatar.”
Buffs- beneficial spells that a magic using character casts on a teammate granting added abilities.
Camping- hiding in a location where it is easy to kill unknowing enemies without being easily spotted and killed.
Caster- a magic user, whether hostile or friendly. Often the most dangerous enemy, and the first that needs to be neutralized.
Character- see avatar.
Echoes- DDO specific game mechanism that means a caster’s spell casting ability is at a minimum. Short for “Echoes of Power.”
FPS- First Person Shooter. Genre that features a look down the sights of a gun, usually including a player versus player online multiplayer aspect.
GamerTag- an Xbox 360 player’s alias, visible by all players.
Healer- MMO-wide term referring to the player whose primary responsibility is to heal damage sustained by the rest of the party.
Line of sight- what is visible by a particular character.
Melee- hand to hand combat, or a designation for a combatant who relies on such tactics.
MMO- Massively Multiplayer Online game, most commonly a role-playing game. Though games like Call of Duty also have many players online at a time, they are not referred to as MMOs.
Pots- short for potions.
PvE- Player versus Environment. The players fight AI controlled enemies vice player controlled characters.
PvP- Player versus Player. Players fight other players.
Respawn- A character returning to life after a temporary death.
Tank- a character whose role is to force enemies to attack him rather than his less sturdy teammates. Often in heavy armor so he resembles a tank.
Top off red bars- Hit points, or health points, are indicated in red compared to spell point bars in blue. Topping off refers to the act of healing a player back to maximum health.
Trapsmith- The environment may contain traps triggered by opening doors or chests or walking past a particular part of a hallway. Certain characters have the ability to spot and disable these traps so that their teammates may pass unharmed.
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Mortal Voyage. (n.d.) Rules. Mortal Voyage Permadeath Guild forums. Retrieved from http://mortalvoyage.com/rules.php
Ottenheimer, H. (2013). The Anthropology of Language: An introduction to Linguistic Anthropology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
SodaHead Gaming. (2012). Did You Buy Call of Duty: Black Ops 2? SodaHead. Retrieved from http://www.sodahead.com/entertainment/did-you-buy-call-of-duty-black-ops-2/question-3330621/
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