Sorry ma’am, I don’t speak text?

What might our games might be like if we couldn’t communicate via text? It’s a difficult concept, because text based communication has been absolutely core to every MMO I’ve played. No guild chat? No whispers? No way to carry out multiple conversations at once? The more I think about it, the more I wonder if text chat is one of the big enablers of massive games. Without them, our communication is limited to the number of people we can reasonably see or hear at the same time.

But if consoles are going to be the next MMOified platform, this is a barrier that they will have to cross. Will it mean more voice chat? Will consoles get keyboards? Will we have to pick our texts from a list instead of being able to input them freeform? Does it matter? Is text an old medium that just slows our games down and adds more pointless information for players need to read?

As a society, we have a long, long history with text. Historically, Victorian text chat — or telegrams, as we like to call them– was the great enabler for the modern internet. And back in those days, if you needed to communicate with massive numbers of people, you put a text advert in the local paper or published a pamphlet.  (If you spend too long thinking about this, you can see why some people hail the printing press as the greatest invention in human history.)

  • Text carries a sense of permanence. Someone can read it later than the time at which it was written. It may not be much later if it is in a text box that scrolls off the screen, but communicating via text doesn’t mean that both the sender and receiver need to be time synchronised. Voice messages can also be stored but it is less convenient.
  • Text is fast, but voice is slow. It takes much longer to listen to someone speak a sentence than it would to read it. If we have to rely on voice for all communications, we simply won’t be able to pass on as much information in the same timescale.
  • Text is easily searchable. You can skim through a box of text to find the amusing typo and copy it to all your friends. Skimming through voice chats means listening all the way through, and hoping that someone has bothered to index which topic came up at what time so that you can fast forward.
  • Text can be used to maintain multiple conversations at the same time. It is easy to be whispering two different people, chatting on guild chat, and having an argument with someone else standing next to you. Voice chat — not so much.
  • People can’t talk over each other in text. They may ignore each other, but you don’t have the issue of more than one person trying to talk at the same time.
  • Texts can mix private with public conversations. At the risk of embarassing mavs, you can have a private and a public conversation at the same time. This is why you can discuss your cat with your best friend at the same time as explaining a boss fight to your guild.

I wonder if text based chat is required for any kind of massive game experience. If we forcibly keep the group size small, then voice chat could totally replace it. You wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone outside the group but maybe that wouldn’t matter. If we make sure that all the information needed is provided by the game, then you might not need to explain fights to people. We could imagine using menus to select what we want to say from a list of options (ie. instead of typing), but that feels restrictive. Or maybe we can communicate via symbols, emotes, interpretive dance on screen?

Or, I suspect, the other alternative is that people still use text. They just find ways to do it outside the game. Maybe everyone has a netbook running IRC, or uses their iPhones to text each other instead. They chat via text boxes and bulletin boards and only log on to actually play instanced content.

Possibly console type MMOs just get less massive. Maybe you don’t need to talk to anyone outside your immediate group ever. Maybe … maybe you don’t need to ever talk to anyone at all.