While talking to my mom the other day, she informed me of a new social media app called “Yo.” Yo, allows you to send only one message to your friends, and that message is literally “yo.” While I thought it was a fun idea, a short-lived joke app, when she told me that it had over a million users, my blood boiled at the thought of this app being taken seriously as a new innovation in social media.
How much can Yo help you connect with your friends when all you can say is one thing over and over? I imagined people sending strings of Yos to one another, tricking themselves into thinking they are having meaningful interaction when they all merely receive empty words. It's like if you took Facebook and stripped away everything but the poke feature.
I chafe at limited communication. The idea of a social media service that only lets you choose from a handful of pre-written responses instead of freely expressing yourself aggravates me, and that is why I'm worried about what Hearthstone might mean concerning how we talk to each other in online games.
For those not in the know, Hearthstone is Blizzard's online card game that's currently free to download. One of Hearthstone's features consists of its limited chat functions, which restricts you to a half-dozen emotes selected from a wheel such as “Well Played,” “Thanks,” or if you're feeling saucy, “Threaten.”
This aspect of Hearthstone's design has been praised up and down for a number of good reasons, most pointedly because it makes it difficult to have a bad experience in online multiplayer. Without the freedom to chat, your opponent's forbidden to say anything mean or rude to you. The worst they can do is hit you with a sarcastic “Sorry” emote after you spend all your mana laying down a fearsome Molten Giant and they use a spell to Polymorph it into a harmless sheep.
Hearthstone is a great gateway game for online multiplayer; it’s free-to-play, colorful, and simply designed both visually and mechanically. The lack of chat compliments these features. Game-averse users who normally wouldn't touch a generic MMO or card battle game are more willing to play Hearthstone because you can basically pretend you're playing against a really crafty AI opponent. The lack of a chat system means you put little pride at stake when you queue up for a Hearthstone match.
But I'm worried that other companies will observe Hearthstone's success, see this lauded emote wheel, and make chatless multiplayer the new standard. It's too effective for other games to not copy it. It makes sense for game companies to prefer it to open chat as the enforced civility means less money spent on community management and, for free-to-play titles, no need to ban players (a.k.a potential customers) for bad manners. Plus, it may help when courting that coveted market of “casual gamers” who have little patience for trolls and bullies.
It's great that Hearthstone’s chat works, and it's a needed experiment in alternative communication methods, but I don't want every game to be Hearthstone. I view communication as an integral part of the multiplayer experience. A competitive game’s ability to make you feel both incredibly weak and incredibly strong are intertwined with its mechanics, and an open chatlog can highlight those extreme emotions. There are few things sweeter than getting heavily trash-talked by an opponent early in the game and then coming back and shutting them down with a win.
At the same time, while chat enables these epic experiences, it enables hundreds of times more negative nightmares for everyone else. I get harassed, belittled, and called names in chat all the time, and I'm a straight, white guy. If you have a gamer handle indicating you're a woman, or gay, or Hispanic, get ready for an even bigger dose of verbal anguish. The freedom to say what you want comes with a price that everyone else pays.
Game developers are still improving chat systems to reduce negative behavior. A post on the League of Legends forums points out stats showing how adding voice chat to the client increased verbal abuse in League games. If letting players verbally talk to one another increased incidences of toxic behavior by a significant amount in text chat, then who knows what other game design elements are making players act less kind with one another? Alternatively, Magic 2014 made chat optional by hiding the window by default and only showing it if you click a button.
Improvements like these reduce problems with trolling and will likely get even more sophisticated in the future, but you know what practically eliminates those problems right now? The Hearthstone wheel.
I don't want to think that gamers need a communication system as draconian as Hearthstone's to keep us in line. I want to think that, when given the ability to type anything to one another during a competition, we won't default to trying to hurt each other's feelings. However, if we really are incapable of civility and use this freedom to be as nasty as we can to others, then we don't deserve to chat. We deserve the wheel.
Gabe Wood is an LA-based comedian currently working through the meat grinder that is the entertainment industry. He spends his free time working through his Steam backlog when he can pry himself away from DOTA 2 and League of Legends