To Talk, or Not to Talk: A Multiplayer Question

There's something to be said for the written word.

For one, it never mumbles. It doesn't have an accent. It rarely shouts, or speaks too soft.

It doesn't carry with it the whining of your two young children, or the barking of your Taco Bell dog, or the sound of your 500 watt speakers.

It can't belch.

The same cannot be said for vocal communication. The ditching of dial-up and the advent of broadband has lead to a revolution of multiplayer video game communication. Whereas voice chat used to be a rare occasion, organized only for the most important of clan matches, plenty of multiplayer games are now shipping with their own built-in voice solutions.

From Halo 3 to World of Warcraft to Team Fortress 2, the gaming air waves are officially open. Now everyone can hear your whiny, nasally nerd voice on demand, complete with raspy breathing noises and god-crushing sneezes. Now all have a chance to voice their opinions on the coming political election, and the advantages of being heterosexual, all while blowing up bases and spawn-camping the innocent.

Now everyone has an equal voice. Let freedom sing.

On second thought, please don't sing. No, really. Shut up. Dude, come on. SHUT THE FUCK UP. Can somebody kick him?

You know, maybe it's the fact that I grew up with the internet, mastered instant messages before I got to algebra, and quickly learned how to type a three-page dissertation while flying through the air and shooting off a spinfusor in Tribes, but I just can't get behind voice chat.

The hindering nature of headsets. The harsh tearing of low-fidelity throat noises. The direct communication with a seething sect of humanity.

All these reasons have me hugging my keyboard in terror.

Headset Hell
First of all, I don't like headsets. They freak me out.

Their whole structure is alien, like a pair of headphones with some kind of creepy plastic snake trying to reach around and bite off your face. They remind me of a scary contraption you'd put on at the dentist, right before your local practitioner says something comforting like, "Just let me know if it hurts too much."

Freud would probably have a lot to say about this.

It's hard finding a decent headset, too. Gaming sets are often cheaply made, with boxy vice-like phones that clamp to your head, and cheap pipe-cleaner mics with little give. When you finally find a set built well enough, it's not likely to sound better than your $250 Sennhesiers. And wearing two pairs of headphones at once does not work as well as you'd think.

If you happen to settle on a set of cans, actually using them can be a surreal experience. The dampening power of the earmuff-like headset adds a decidedly subsurface effect, to the point where even the shortest of phrases sound utterly foreign. It's like trying to talk on the phone after being hit with a flash-bang.

On the console side, the standard Xbox 360 headset has a smaller profile than most, but it's also a flimsy excuse of a peripheral. Its ear-piece may be light on the lobes, but the scratchy noises emanating from behind the foam padding certainly aren't. How do you communicate on a device that renders your voice as a tinny, high-pitched computer? When your voice is already tinny and high-pitched, as is mine, the resultant boosting is downright painful.

And if you're using the Xbox 360 headset, that also means you're probably using Xbox Live. Nothing is more painful than that.

50 DKP Minus
There's the guy who knows how to win, if only you'd just listen to him. How about the guy who got drunk an hour ago, and thinks everything out of his mouth is the funniest thing since Dane Cook? And, in case you forgot inbetween maps, he is soooo high.

Or the guy who figured that it must be cheaper to talk his friend over Halo than to use a phone. The guy who so desperately wants to know where his team is. The guy who only likes to eat crunchy things.

And then there's the guy who just wants to call somebody gay. It doesn't matter who.

Yes, Xbox Live is the undisputed wasteland of rational discourse. Children and immature adults of all ages cling to its web-like assortment of gaming pleasures like venomous insects, violently venting everything from racist tirades to plain incoherent babbling.

Of course, people had been calling eachother gay long before Xbox Live was created. On the PC, external voice chat applications like Teamspeak, Roger Wilco, and Ventrilo have been around for years. But now that voice is a freely available feature, there's no avoiding it.

And nowhere is voice chat more prevalent, and more discomforting, than in World of Warcraft.

The full bore of a 500-man guild populating voice chat channels is at once horrifying and obscene. While some can handle taking snappy commands from a 15-year-old kid in the heat of battle, hours on end, somehow it all seems absurd. I spend my free time taking terse orders from a guy that I wouldn't trust to mow my lawn? Really?

If video killed the radio star, voice chat is killing the typing enthusiast. No longer can we simply play a game in peace, idly tapping out taunts from round to round. Instead, every multiplayer game's soundtrack now comes with a version of That Guy yelling in the background, screaming for somebody to just get on the point, you idiots!

The only way to avoid this verbal abuse is to remove yourself from the conversation entirely; to disable voice chat and pretend the outside world does not exist, becoming a reclusive hermit in the midst of the virtual battlefield, blissfully ignorant of who is calling you gay at any one moment.

The Gang's All Here
However, rather than commit myself to the role of preaching dinosaur, I have to admit that voice chat offers many advantages that simple typing can't ever hope to replicate.

Speaking is, of course, the more expedient form of communication. In competitive play, voice chat offers a significant edge to those who make full use of it. While typing "There's a spy behind you!" would surely end in your death, saying the same thing can save countless lives over the course of a single TF2 round.

And the fact is, voice can often actually contribute to the immersion of a game. In EVE Online, organized squads of Goon Fleet members often roleplay fighter pilots, issuing cool commands while still keeping a sense of humor. It can be odd hearing something like "sector clear" from someone who truly believes it, and from a voice that isn't sampled. After a while, the geek in me surrenders to such a slick operation.

Perhaps most importantly, voice puts a face to the faceless, a sound to the silent avatars that inhabit multiplayer games. While some have developed distinctive voices in their writing, everyone is born with a unique vocal ability. Just join the Shacknews Team Fortress servers for evidence of that.

Jonathan Parker Bedrava, a man from the radio era clearly lost in time. Abigail Sponge, the ever-optimistic Englishwoman. Maddog_Delphi, a man from the caveman era clearly lost in time. Round after round, you get to recognize the tones and timbres of the people behind the soldiers and spies, and the result can often be far more fun than even the most elegant of kills.

The Final Solution
Imagine the world of Xbox Live made real. Picture a planet populated with the accumulated scum of every bad Halo 3 match you've played in.

You're in line at the grocery store with the newest copy of Entertainment Weekly--oh that Tom Cruise!--and the cashier calls you a fag. You walk into the doctor's office, open wounds bleeding profusely, and the doctors--huddled laughing around a bong--ignore you. On television, politicians hurl racial slurs across the podiums in furious temper tantrums, red-faced and ready to cry. Even your mom makes fun of your mom.

Tribes of players, roving gangs of friends comfortable with their own company seem the only solution, the only way to survive in this post-apocalyptic world of easy verbal communication. That magical headset transports you to a very scary place, but there is safety in numbers. We have to stick together.

Guys, come on. Stick together! What the fuck, where is my team?!