Second Life, MMORPGs, and conversation

November 19, 2007

So, I reactivated my old Second Life account to do some building work for my dad at Baker College. He's started a virtual space for Baker College in Second Life called Baker Island. It's apparently a research exercise in the vein of human-computer interaction, and I've been tasked with building a café for all the virtually-hungry students that come calling.

As I wandered around Second Life's many shops and freebie areas looking for resources to help build the café, I noticed an overwhelming number of people running around….but not talking. There was very little chatter in the public chat, and little chatter in the rather large groups I belong to. So, while there is a large number of users in these shopping areas - ostensibly the most populous regions in Second Life - there was almost no social interaction.

Compare this to World of Warcraft, the largest Western MMORPG in terms of paying subscribers. Everywhere you go, there is inevitably a dearth of conversation. People form groups, raids, and arena teams…not to mention guilds. There is a constant loud presence in larger areas like Orgrimmar and the Crossroads.

So why does Second Life have so little person-to-person interaction, while World of Warcraft (and other MMORPGs) has so much?

I've noticed in my many gaming adventures online that the more of a sandbox a virtual world or game is, the less chatter there is. The more there is to do, the more likely it seems that people want to concentrate on doing things rather than talking. EVE: Online is an unusual example - plenty of conversation, but a sandbox environment. This one can be rationalized by pointing out that in EVE there are a large number of activities that are heavy on downtime - travel, for instance. Plenty of time to do nothing but wait and, if there are others around waiting, talk.

On the other side of things, games like Team Fortress 2 that are filled with highly attention-intensive activities prevent chatter by engaging players constantly. While the number of possible activities doesn't match, say, Second Life, the sheer percentage of the players' brains that must be devoted to normal game activities tends to outweigh the conversational side.

So, really, could you say that the amount of chatting going on is directly proportional to the boredom factor of the game? It's possible. It's very possible.

Developers would do well to take note of this fact when designing online games.