For a long time I didn’t like to use a microphone while playing games. I’m still not thrilled about the idea of talking into my computer while playing with strangers, but I’ve gotten used to the concept enough to be comfortable playing with friends. It adds a lot: It’s fun hanging out with people that way and, obviously, you can exchange information much more quickly and effectively when you’re using a microphone, when you can speak directly to teammates and they to you. However, less obviously, there are subtle things you start to miss out on.
The most immediate thing you stop noticing as much is the in-game sound. Normally, when playing a game with strong sound design, audio is one of the most important channels of information you have. You can hear where nearby opponents are, who’s attacking and in what direction. You can hear someone switching weapons, someone sneaking up on you, someone suddenly stopping, turning, jumping – or, when you notice something making a loud noise, you can use that sound to conceal your own footsteps or attacks. This aspect of the game is not, of course, entirely removed from play by the introduction of voice chat, but an active voice chat, especially one you’re listening to for information, by necessity forces these valuable audio cues to recede – not only makes it harder for the ears to hear these sounds, but also for the mind to track them, interpret them, evaluate them.
It’s not surprising that you stop being able to perceive audio information as readily. What is, perhaps, more surprising is that certain kinds of visual information stop being easily interpreted as well. For instance, when you’re playing Left 4 Dead, particularly as the infected(zombie) team, you interpret your teammates intentions by the positions they take. A hunter climbing up to a roof is probably intending to pounce from above at the next choke point, while a smoker setting up underneath a walkway is probably looking to grab someone and pull them down. Where your teammates move, how your teammates move, and where they’re facing all tells you what they intend. However, this information becomes much less important if they can just tell you what they intend. Neither form of information is perfect: Intentions shift, things fail to be communicated or are miscommunicated – and, in the end, in the vast majority of circumstances, the microphone becomes redundant. In a few cases voice communications can even be misleading – true, in practice there will probably be fewer circumstances where voice communications are confusing than where the absence of mics will confuse or mislead, but still something is lost, even as something is gained.
The extent of non-verbal communication available to us in games is subtly remarkable. Many games don’t have any explicit non-verbal communication – no waving, beckoning, bowing, dancing… Nothing. Still the underlying concepts of these motions are conveyed through the context of the game’s normal movement, through looking at something, shaking your view up or down, crouching and jumping and leaning. It’s startling, sometimes, noticing how much we come to inhabit these virtual bodies, the same way a car becomes an extension of ourselves, its grace and speed becomes our own, and without thinking we signal our vehicular intentions by little boosts of speed and turns, turn signals and horn beeps, in a delicate and potentially lethally dangerous cooperative dance with other motorists.
But we lose some of that, when we talk. In cars that loss can be dangerous – which is why we frown on cell phone usage while driving – but in games it’s, at worst, mildly saddening. Even the most wonderful gifts carry subtle and unforeseen costs and consequences.