GDC 2021: Research on online video game voice chat has come a long way

    
15

Covering studies about video gamers often reveals a glaring problem with the science on the topic: Most of it looks has traditionally surveyed text chat rather than voice chat. But today we’ve got a story that could change that narrative, as Hank Howie, Director of Partnerships at Modulate, gave a quick overview of recent studies involving voice chat during the summer GDC 2021.

Naturally, part of the reason for the increased attention to this research is likely that people are simply online more and communicating online more due to COVID. However, it may also be because online games represent the majority of top-performing games since 2008, and researchers are starting to catch up with the changing accessibility that’s come into them. It may not be surprising to us, but voice chat users often played twice as much as non-voice chat players. Voice chat keeps us engaged, helps with communicating strategies, can be combined with proximity chat to deepen immersion – and can be used against us. During his talk, Howie really drove home how much of a double-edged sword voice chat can be with his research review, and while not a lot of it is incredibly surprising, it’s good to see some studies showing the things we gamers take as common knowledge.

The Anti-Defamation League has a free report on online games discussing things like hate, harassment, and also positive experiences via gaming that included work on voice chat and its role in gaming. It won’t surprise many of our own readers, but the report suggests 40% or more of people in various online contexts were harassed in voice chat as opposed to text chat, and that PS4 users reported higher amounts of voice chat abuse than Nintendo Switch players. It also notes that a Valorant executive producer said she decided not to use voice chat due to gender-based harassment, which one would hope would cause more game devs to take voice-chat harassment more seriously.

While online games did make people feel like they had made friends, we have to remember that when in discussing social bonds, bridges, and capital, there is a vast difference between being friends and being game partners. The latter is often context-sensitive and may not move beyond that game, while a real friend is your friend in multiple contexts. So while a player may immediately feel better at that a connection, the realization that the friend is gone once the game ends is sad.

This was a common theme when discussing voice chat. For example, we know women experience harassment on voice chat, but a study by Michael McDaniel on women in FPS games shows that the percentage of women harassed by voice chat is nearly the same as the amount who feel empowered by voice chat. Similarly, a 2021 study by The Trevor Project indicated that while LGBTQ+ kids experienced higher harmful experiences than their peers, gaming is also where LGBTQ+ people find “joy and strength.”

It should also be noted that kids use blocking and reporting tools more than they approach parents with these issues. This is key because, as Howie points out, voice chat isn’t just abused for general harassment; it’s also used for child grooming and terrorism recruitment. Even when kids blocked or reported users, those same users were “quickly” finding them again.

During the pandemic, games have been a place for people to meet. Our games are fun, but they can also become a social background for casual chats to (re)connect with friends we can’t see as we once used to. As Mars Ashton, Assistant Professor of Game Design and presenter of a separate panel on social structures during COVID noted, games can provide psychological benefits to players to help them move beyond their basic needs and up toward their self-fulfillment needs. It’s not surprising that online games, including MMOs, have seen their numbers go up, guilds fill out, and emergent gameplay spread.

However, those social structures can be ruined or even avoided due to poor experiences. Again, it’s not terribly surprising to find out that 59% of women in one study admitted to hiding their gender identity. We’ve talked about this before, but the negative experiences users have had with voice chat could be partially addressed as a general accessibility approach. As Howie notes, you can get a lot of people to buy a game, but you can’t just measure your success in money. If the ADL study’s findings of 28% of players leaving a game due to negative voice chat experiences, that is 28% of now former players who potentially could spread their negative experience and worse may never become customers for future releases.

It is in a company’s best interest to not only understand the positive aspects of voice chat – and there are clearly many! – but also the negative ones and how best to tackle them. I am still unsure why voice filters are so uncommon, especially in online games where for decades gamers have noted their ill-treatment at the hands of toxic players, but the quality of these products hasn’t always been stellar either. Within our communities, we can talk about some solutions we’ve found to help curb the negative aspects of voice chat and hopefully increase the positive.

MOP’s Andrew Ross is reporting from GDC’s summer digital event in 2021! You can find more of his coverage right here:

Advertisement

No posts to display

15
LEAVE A COMMENT

Please Login to comment
  Subscribe  
newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
Reader
Bruno Brito

It should also be noted that kids use blocking and reporting tools more than they approach parents with these issues. This is key because, as Howie points out, voice chat isn’t just abused for general harassment; it’s also used for child grooming and terrorism recruitment. Even when kids blocked or reported users, those same users were “quickly” finding them again.

“bUt YoU hAvE tHe PoWeR tO sToP hArRaSsMeNt By IgNoRiNg It”

Yeah. It doesn’t work like that. If you get one fucking idiot who has time and willpower, he WILL ruin your day, specially on F2P games.

People, we live in a world where gamers were literally ruining their own lives to swat others. Ignore and Block became mandatory tools and yet, insuficient. I don’t know what the solution is, but let’s at least try to improve it instead of pretending it’s enough when it isn’t.

EDIT: Just to get on the VC thing:

I’m a simple person. I don’t want to VC with strangers. i don’t care about strangers. I don’t want them to know about anything about me nor do i want them to hear my voice. Let my dulcet tones be for my friends.

If a game doesn’t offer me the means to communicate through several means, i don’t care for that game.

Reader
Sarah Cushaway

As someone who is hearing impaired, I hate how every guild now requires VC because I can’t hear you anyway unless I put in my hearing aids and then they just do that annoying interference squeal.

Also, I prefer people not knowing my gender in games since being a woman in games almost always leads to being harassed.

So no thanks.

Reader
Jon Wax

The people I game with for the most part I’ve met face to face. Kinda hard to be in entertainment industry and stay anonymous. Personally I’d rather own my flaws and mistakes, not bury em.

Not sure how everyone got the idea that disingenuous appearances are better then honesty.

Human species isn’t evolved enough for the web. Shoulda waited til 2050 or so to roll it out and even that is optimistic.

EmberStar
Reader
EmberStar

Not sure how everyone got the idea that disingenuous appearances are better then honesty.

I’m going to guess that you’re male, and straight, and play mostly with people you personally know, yes?

I play characters of both genders. I’ve had people *assume* they knew my real gender, and then freak the hell out. In no particular order:

I was playing a male character, and someone decided I am actually a woman. They started to get *very* creepy, and it ended with me reporting them to the GM, blocking them, blocking them and reporting them *again* because they changed characters and then *accounts* to keep creeping on me, and finally with logging out and not playing the game for two month.

Female character, someone decided I was actually a woman – see above, only replace “being creepy” with “blatant demand for nude pictures and e-sex.”

Female character, someone who initially thought I *might* be a woman and then changed their mind. They got *extremely* rude and aggressive, first via tells and then following me from zone to zone, apparently shouting that I was a catfish to anyone who was in general chat. I had blocked them immediately. They still made my life in that game hell for months afterwards.

Female character, someone decided outright that I am actually male. Again, insults and accusations that I am somehow either a pervert or doing it “for the free stuff.” Followed by a demand for nudes to prove my actual gender, with the threat that if I refused they’d “know they were right” and broadcast it to everyone in Zone chat.

That’s just a small sample. Because I normally do things solo in MMOs, this kind of thing represents a *majority* of my conversations with other players. The sample is obviously heavily biased towards people who are “complete sociopaths,” because normal people don’t generally start attacking a complete stranger for no good reason. But my overwhelming experience is that unless you’re a dood, playing a dood, and using voice chat to prove you’re a dood, you’re going to have a bad time.

Reader
Sarah Cushaway

Welcome to dealing with stuff women have to deal with every time they want to play a game and people KNOW they’re female. Fun, isn’t it?

EmberStar
Reader
EmberStar

I didn’t even include the “out of nowhere” attempts at “sexual assault RP” where the first thing they say is a /whisper about how they’re trying to chloroform me and drag me into an alley (which has happened multiple times.) Or the fumbling attempts at trying to get me to ERP. “What do you mean no? I said you looked nice!”

Or the part where I have characters who are cat people, which has resulted in blind tells that range from “kill yourself, you furry (content deleted)” to “Imma git u banned, furry perv!”

*Edit* Considering that I *really* do not go out of my way to interact with people online most of the time, I have a really, really unusual number of extremely negative interactions with complete strangers. It’s like some kind of messed up anti-super power. OnO

Fisty
Reader
Fisty

the report suggests 40% or more of people in various online contexts were harassed in voice chat as opposed to text chat

Text chat should never die. First, it’s better. Then there is an accountability involved, it can be traced. It’s easier to analyze, second guess, correct or refrain from saying in text. There are tons of folks who can’t hear, or unable to speak or just plain avoid it due to anxiety. Basically, I hate you FO76 and Bethesda.

Reader
Sarah Cushaway

I’m one of those who can’t hear well and I’m also one of those that just likes privacy that VC doesn’t give :/

Reader
laelgon

I think part of the reason voice chat tends to be so much worse is that people are confident there will be zero consequence. It’s super easy to verify a report that someone said something vile in text chat because it’s all logged. For voice chat, unless the person on the receiving end is recording their play, there’s nothing to go on. Personally, and I imagine a lot of people feel the same way, I’m not going to be constantly recording myself just so I have evidence if/when some shithead decides to be a shithead.

Voice chat is definitely one of those things that either greatly improves my enjoyment or fills me with anger. For every experience with a great group of random people using comms, there’s many more that have people perpetually hot-micing at best, and screaming slurs at worst.

EmberStar
Reader
EmberStar

Pretty much the extent of my “in-game” voice chat experience was Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer, on PC. They just ported the code from the console versions, I guess, which didn’t include in-game controls for voice chat because that’s all built into the console OS. The result was that on PC, anyone with a mic had to unplug it unless they wanted it to be always on. And because “not a console,” there was no in-game indicator who was speaking.

Mostly it amounted to everyone playing in complete silence, except for the random times when someone was watching Netflix/fighting with their kids/eating Cheetos with the mic apparently IN THEIR MOUTH. And a few cases of someone being a complete jerk, demanding people “follow their orders” or something. All of the cases that stand out in my memory were deeply negative, where someone freaked out about which character I was playing or *how* I was playing that character.

Fisty
Reader
Fisty

Wow, that is a hell of a “bug”. Also, that alone sounds like it could be more entertaining than ME3 multiplayer.

EmberStar
Reader
EmberStar

Speaking as someone who prefers to solo and basically doesn’t have any business even being on an MMO site… ME3 Multiplayer was actually fun, most of the time. There were even a couple of very rare occasions where someone would have their mic set up (somehow) with Push To Talk configured and actually be okay.

One game that stands out was a short series where I was playing around with the Geth Juggernaut character. Blah blah backstory blah blah, but the simple version is: A giant robot character that had much higher than normal health, armor and melee damage(?) but couldn’t use the Dodge Roll or climb ladders or take cover. The trade-off is that they’re also too huge for any NPCs to “grab,” which for several types of NPC was basically an instant kill for any other character.

Anyway, there was a mission where one of the random objective types was “grab the thing, carry the thing to the extraction point, then do it again.” Because of how the enemy was spawning, the package was surrounded by “giant monster” enemies that could grab and auto-kill most characters. After a minute or two of no one else going for it, I trudged up, shoved the Banshee out of the way, and grabbed the package. Then turned around and started marching towards the dropoff point.

One of the other players went *totally berzerk,* because a Juggernaut can’t do a sort-of-but-not-really-an-exploit move where you do a thing to drop the package, roll forward and instantly pick it up again. Players that could do it could scoot to the exit at high speed. (Juggernauts also couldn’t choose to *drop* the package, the only way to get rid of it was to deliver it or die.) As soon as I was out of the “instant kill” area for all the giant monster enemies, he ran up and started swinging at me with his gun-butt, shouting obsceneties into the mic.

One of the other players clicked into voice: “If it was that important to you, why didn’t you do it? You’ve got one of the best characters for scooting the objective.” (I forget the exact term.) The player doing the freaking out responded that there had been a Banshee standing on it, and he’d have died. “Exactly. So shut the hell up. No one else was taking the package, so the Geth went and got it. If it matters to you so much, get it yourself next time. Geth, keep doing exactly what you’re doing. Good job.”

It stands out as one of like… three times anyone was using voice chat on purpose and to be even a little bit nice.

Reader
Toy Clown

I’d like to see a study on deaf gamers and how they’re coping with an industry that’s leaving them in the dust.

EmberStar
Reader
EmberStar

Probably the same way as people who just refuse to use voice chat for any other reason. I don’t know about console, since that has voice chat built in. But on PC, I just ignore it. I have less than zero desire to use voice chat (either to speak or to listen to random other people.) I’ve been invited to MJ’s team when she’s streamed Warframe a few times, it’s normally not an huge issue.

In that case, I can listen to the stream in the background, although there have been a couple of cases where I totally screwed something up because the stream is delayed by a minute or so, and by the time someone in her voice chat said “don’t do the thing” in the stream… I’d already done the thing. OnO

*Edit* If I have something to say, I’ll use the stream text chat, since that’s the one most people are paying attention to. As far as text chat in general, that’s the same as it ever has been – I only use it if I think something is so important that it’s worth getting chat-sniped by a random Grineer while I try to type. Mostly, nothing I would want to say is that important.

Reader
Sarah Cushaway

It sucks. I’m not completely deaf but I have moderate hearing loss in one ear, severe in the other, and I really miss the days when guilds communicated via typing.