Voice and Text in Virtual Worlds: An Interview with Grog Waydelich
11.3.2008 Diane Carr

In February 08 I saw a notice from the SL Thinkers Group about a meeting to discuss voice use in SL. I could not make the meeting, but I contacted the convenor Grog Waydelich to find out what went on. This was also an opportunity to ask Grog’s first life manifestation Greg Wadley about his research into voice and text use in graphically rendered social worlds. More information about Greg’s work and publications is available online here

Picture of interview

We met at the Social Simulations Research Lab, founded by Mynci Gorky at Hyperborea (199, 88, 23), which is a nice place to visit. Here’s our interview transcript, beginning with an introduction from Grog.

Grog: For my PhD research I am interested in comparing voice and text communication in virtual worlds – my final study is in SL. I have a project description for interviewees at my Uni staff page.
You: So you’ve just ‘outed’ yourself as a real life person there….
Grog: I’ve been outing all along in this project. For ethics reasons, I have to tell people who I am, project info etc. At first I didn’t want to, as it is not “the SL way”, but I think I have no choice
You: Please tell me about your event!
Grog: I’ve hosted a discussion “about” voice, though not using voice. I’ve been in a few meetings in SL, some using voice. I’m in the “Thinkers” discussion group. We hold a discussion each week on a particular topic. I asked the group whether we could have a discussion about the voice channel in SL. Discussion went for about an hour. Though it was about voice, we didn’t use SL voice. I tried to at one point, and crashed SL
You: But that was your original intention – to have the discussion using voice?
Grog: Kind of. There is a lot of resistance to voice among many SL users. This discussion group in particular are a bit “old school”, and many are opposed to voice.
You: On what basis?
Grog: …some quite hostile, even going so far as to say that the topic of voice put people off attending
You: Even the topic!? Aside from the actual use of voice?
Grog: Yes who knows, maybe true. As to why the resistance to voice…
You: So…you proposed using voice, then had to adjust…Yes…please go on…
Grog: it’s hard to say exactly, it’s the $64 question, and I am partly offering my own opinion rather than that of others. Voice transmits too much information about the person behind the avatar…”too much” meaning, “more than the person wants to transmit”, for example, gender, age, ethnicity may be transmitted by a person’s voice
You: Right. My impression (from reading the forums) reflects what you say…in that if a person resisted voice, they might be ‘accused’ of having something ‘to hide’ – slightly suspect in some circles, acceptable in others
Grog: Yes, it’s analogous to the argument against identity cards.
You: The related problem I think is that in some circles (business and education, for example) you are supposed to be transparent – and voice is supposed to be ‘less of a disguise’ if you know what I mean…
Grog: I am detecting two distinct groups of SL users. Some of the “old school” users (I don’t really have a good name for them as a group) live in SL as an alternative fictional world. But SL is being taken up by a newer group – business and education people primarily – who treat it quite differently.
Some people call these two groups “immersionists” and “augmentationists”. Over-generalizing, the former dislike voice while the latter welcome it. [see more on this issue at this link]
You: If we stay with the meeting for a minute, and come back to your findings/research…What was the level of interest, and what type of audience did you have?
Grog: It’s hard to categorize the audience. Everyone is pseudonymous
You: Did they categorize themselves? Did the contributors contextualise their experience of voice and text (in terms of being educators or socialites for example)?
Grog: A few did. One had been using SL to rehearse plays. A couple were educators. Many seem to be the “old school” SL users I referred to before. We are explicitly a “discussion group”
You: Right…hence the switch to text for the meeting….Was the discussion led or was it unstructured?
Grog: I led to some extent – though it is a lively group and conversations go off by without help
You: Was there any consensus about the introduction or the use of voice?
Grog: No consensus – voice is controversial. I really think there are different “types” of users who have, and may continue to have, different opinions about voice
You: And they argued at the meeting?
Grog: Yes there was vigorous debate – sometimes with me!… although I wasn’t really offering an opinion. I think some people assumed I like SL voice
You: Right…that’s interesting. Also, perhaps indicative of a sort of suspicion or mild hostility towards the notion of research in SL itself – or specific to voice do you think?
Grog: interesting point – possibly both. There was undoubtedly hostility by some attendees to the very idea of voice. I didn’t detect hostility to research on that particular occasion. But I do wonder about that sometimes. Some people have joked about the high proportion of academics in SL
You: Also…the fact that you had proposed to hold the meeting using voice might have ‘positioned’ you as ‘pro-voice’??
Grog: People may have interpreted it that way – though it’s not the case. Perhaps I needed to explain my position (not that I really have one) more clearly. At one point I did in fact point out that I am not pushing a position, but trying to find out other people’s views
You: In the meeting…did that help?
Grog: Not sure – it’s hard to know in a large-group text chat whether every sentence is seen by all. Some definitely were not. It depends on how people read the text window, whether they scroll back up through the conversation, or just read each sentence as it appears. Some sentences I typed weren’t “read” by all. I had to repeat a few. So a “key statement” like “I am not pro voice” may not have gotten through. If anything, I have published research that points out the problems of online voice.
You: Is there a transcript available – I would love to read it.
Grog: I have it saved – can dig it up later
You: How did the participants feel about chat-logging?
Grog: I haven’t detected any problems with logging. When in SL for research purposes, I always point out my ethical constraints. I anonymize my saved transcripts. With text that’s easy to do
You: Great – I’d love to see a copy. So – do you want to say more about your research -where this fits in, what perspectives you are using, what questions you are asking?
Grog: Sure – it’s hard in this little chat window though – what specifically should I mention?
You: Whatever you like. Whatever seems most relevant to you.
Grog: I have a fairly “grounded” approach – I am gathering all the data and experience I can, and discovering the questions as I go.
You: I gather that SL is your final ‘case study’ looking at voice in online worlds? Is that right?
Grog: Yes the previous cases were all graphical online game technologies / worlds. Xbox Live, a FPS, and two MMORPGs. For the FPS, I studied a voice system designed by some researchers in Australia, it does “spatial voice” – it isn’t part of the game software.
You: Does ‘spatial voice’ locate the voice in the space? Like: ‘she’s behind you’?
Grog:…”spatial voice” is “3d” yes – this was uncommon in games then
You: Are you differentiating between ‘integrated voice’ features (like was introduced to WoW and SL last year) and the use of things like Ventrillo…?
Grog: kind of differentiating – it makes a difference to the usability. In the FPS, the voice wasn’t integrated. In the MMORGs, some were and some weren’t
You: Is usability an issue in your research? What other issues are emerging?
Grog: Usability was our main focus early on – now we see many more issues
You: Ah, right. Which MMORPGs did you look at?
Grog: The MMORPGs were Dungeons and Dragons Online (integrated voice) and WoW (not integrated at time of research)
You: Voice was pretty widespread in WoW before the voice integration though?
Grog: yes voice has been very popular in WoW – no problems finding enthusiastic users. If anything text is the exception…
You: [Common] During end game/high level/guild/raids etc…Less common in early lvl play and casual groups…?
Grog: …the WoW situation contrasts with SL – “why” is the interesting question. The more time I spend in SL the more I clearly see it is not a game, nothing like WoW
You: Of course…but hang on….Voice in WoW….common during end game/high level/guild/raids etc…? Less common in early lvl play…casual groups…? And less common in Role-Playing guilds…??
Grog: WoW users who use “external” voice products eg TeamSpeak and Vent – these are usually guilds. Ah, but what exactly is “role playing” in WoW? Another $64 question. The guild members usually know each other well, often in RL
You: I mean that a guild that self-identifies as Role-Playing – wouldn’t they be less likely to adopt voice than a straight pvp guild….?
Grog: People who know each other in RL generally have less objection to using voice. And the game tactics and need for fast use of keyboard, and group coordination, make voice a game-winner – this is not relevant in SL. The question of whether voice is compatible with role-playing is complex – many say “no” but on further reflection it can be argued otherwise. I’ve mostly looked at discussion / meetings / teaching / general use…a lot of different kinds of use
You: Have you looked at the RP communities in SL?
Grog: Again, it’s a hard question – what exactly is RP? Some SL users argue that every SL user is doing RP, all the time
You: Guess so. But [when I remember to] I’d distinguish between role-play and Role Play (capital letters….)
Grog: Also, plenty of RL RP happens with voice, eg stage acting. Depends on what role you want to play I guess. I have discussed with people who use voice-altering software. Can you explain what you mean by lower/upper case RP?
You: well, it’s about definitions of game/play – to Role Play there’ll be rules and a games master (probably) – it is possible to make useful distinctions (even if they are not hard and fast). Whereas to ‘role play’ just means anything – like I’m ‘playing’ the role of somebody in a chair…..
Grog: Many MMORPG interviewees talked about the problem of playing different gender when using voice
You: Exactly
Grog: On the other hand, plenty of people successfully RP in RL, eg Larp, DnD – using voice
You: True…Salen and Zimmerman have done stuff on that of course…[their Digra 2003 keynote]
Grog: Kids do it all the time
Grog: That recent book “Second Person” has good stuff on RL RP
You: Ok – so what else about your research? Perhaps we got a bit side-tracked by RP/rp there…
Grog: For theory I am looking to the literature on communication, which compares CMC to meetings, phone calls, video conferencing…
You: Right…Is the games studies literature helping as well?
Grog: At first I read the games studies lit a lot – more recently I see these technologies more as communication than game
You: ouch.
You: You mean communications within a game…or ‘just’ communications – how do you make this distinction?
You: The game is ‘just’ the context…or…?
Grog: Good, and complex, questions! 🙂
You: Yes…lucky we are sitting down!
Grog: Player-to-player communication is generally “in game”, but not always. Often the conversation is about RL topics. Voice may accentuate this. In-game chat can be similar to conversation had while watching sport
You: But if that social aspect is ‘part of what a game is’ (beyond the rule set…for example), it’s a blurry line perhaps?
Grog: The 3d graphics and avatar adds a whole new dimension that is not present in most prior CMC. The game influences player conversation, which is why FPS and MMORPG communication is different to what goes on in SL
You: Yes…
Grog: But the gameplay isn’t the whole story IMO. A lot of the games literature prior to WoW is about single player games
You: Hmmm well…some of the digital games stuff, maybe. Ethnographic stuff, less so?
Grog: Games as texts, or as a new kind of film
You: …Geertz on deep play, one example…social contexts of gaming….
Grog: the ethnography has been more about the games in context – how they are played by real people in real settings
You: Ok – before we go off topic here…(and we could go for miles) Could you give me a ‘name check’ of the issues coming up in your research…so usability is one….what else?
Grog: I am still immersed in the research and don’t have a concise answer yet.
But …RL vs SL identity. I have a chart that differentiates online voice and text along about 10 dimensions – drawn from communication literature
You: And this is for your doctorate…which you are near completing?
Grog: That CMC view is my starting point – however I increasingly see the interaction of the graphical world in all this. Yes I hope to finish next year. My SL research is the last of the “data gathering” – then I write up. I hope to write up the SL research for a conference before then.
You: And in terms of discipline…you are sort of situated in CMC/Communications?
Grog: I’m in the UniMelb “Interaction Design Group” – human use of tech, usability, etc. But this PhD is edging in the direction of communications. I am spending a lot of time with SL educators, and being a teacher myself, I anticipate some interesting results on SL teaching.
You: Can you give us a link…? For the lab I mean.
Grog: This page has a lot of detail about the project, previous papers etc.
You: Right…so, usability. Education…has access/accessibility been an issue as well?
Grog: Accessibility is an issue with voice. Some people find voice more accessible than text, some find it less so.
You: Right…did that come up at the meeting as well?
Grog: I don’t think it was a major issue. But people elsewhere have commented on it. Some of the objection to voice is along these lines.
You: So, it is an issue ‘generally’ but was not mentioned at the meeting specifically?
Grog: Problems with accessibility can be due to a speech disability, or inadequacy of computer or internet connection – not everyone has the bandwidth and hardware to do VoIP
You: Then there are institutional firewalls….
Grog: Well I have seen the issue of accessibility come up, but I don’t think it did at the Thinkers discussion – I’d have to check the transcript – it wasn’t a major topic I recall. Yes, firewalls too. In SL, voice sometimes simply crashes the client
You: Ha, yes, that would not help.
[And at this point, my computer crashed. I logged back in…]
Grog: back again?
You: I crashed…right on cue! OK, well thank you very much for the interview…you’ve been most generous with your time…Is there anything you’d like to ask me before we conclude?
Grog: Sure! I’m interested in any opinion you have on voice vs text communication in online games or SL. You’re primarily interested in SL for education? Education seems to me to be the area where voice is most useful. And business meetings
You: Well – I think that there’s an assumption that that is true…And that the notion that voice is ‘less disguised’ is part of that (would you agree?)
Grog: I imagine, in a teaching context, that the speed/efficiency/clarity (perhaps) of voice would be significant pros…and there would be few cons. I’m hoping to work with an educator this semester and “do the experiment” – give students voice to communicate with each other
You: What would be the task or content?
Grog: But would students be more inclined to ask questions if “disguised”?
Grog: Students are building projects in SL – then they peer review etc
You: Well, building or scripting exercises you can see an obvious pro to voice I guess. Less so if you are teaching something else. Depends on task and content I think. What cons are you expecting?
Grog: Likewise – this is highly dependent on context – there may be some of what gamers call “trash talking”. Also, voice leaves no transcript.
You: That’s a big issue for researchers!
Grog: Issues of online identity, anonymity etc may take on a whole new light in education context beyond other online or gaming contexts
You: Depends if the students know each other already…
Grog: Some of this has already been explored by teachers using online forums
You: …and it also depends if they are only working in SL, or using SL in combination with another VLE – or with face to face teaching…
Grog: I had a “work meeting’ recently which was in SL, using both text chat and a telephone conference – about 15 users
You: Which mode came to dominate?
Grog: There was interesting interplay between the simultaneous use of voice, text, avatar positioning etc. Couldn’t really say any dominated … the different media were being used for different purposes. The text chat for posting URLs, people’s names and that kind of “texty” stuff
You: Delegation…using it for factual backup?
Grog: but also the text channel become a back -channel – commenting/joking on the “main conversation” happening in voice
You: Right…IM is good for that also….
Grog: Yes – like the use of IM during a group conversation. I’m curious to see how all this will work in education. Another big issue for voice – people around you (in RL) hear what you say, and what is being said (if no headphones) – whether this is good or bad varies hugely. That came up a lot with our gamers – there are some good anecdotes in my recent paper “Speaking in character” (on my website). Eg, gamers’ family members being heard in world
You: Well…I can of course see that voice is useful in some SL education contexts for obvious reasons…But I also think it’s obvious in the sense of being a boring option. It might mean that more interesting options or novel experiences are being overlooked.
Grog: For guild mates who knew each other well, the voice channel “connected households” rather than individuals – people recognized whose spouse or children were yelling in the background. Prior CMC research suggests there should be personality factors too. Different people are differently comfortable with speaking to strangers – though all seem comfortable with text
Grog: Sorry, I am basically typing my last paper to you 🙂
You: Ha – is the paper online at the link you gave me?
Grog: Yes “Speaking in character” pdf
You: Will you be ‘putting up’ the meeting transcript somewhere? I’d love to see it, or link to it.
Grog: I’m happy to email the transcript – but let me make sure I’ve completely anonymized it
You: Great! Thanks again for your time. Get in touch if you’ve any follow on questions etc. I’ll email you anything before it goes up on the blog, to check.
Grog: That would be great.
You: Thanks again Grog. Bye!

Picture of interviewer

Here’s another picture of the Social Simulations Research Lab – note the resources on the bookshelves.

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