VoIP Usage

As preparation for a panel presentation at Spring VON 2006 (focus on voice over IP tools) on communities and communication in MMOGs, I collected some survey data on VoIP usage among MMO players. Anecdotally, and from personal experience, VoIP usage seems to be associated with high-level raids where tight coordination and real-time crisis management are needed. I was interested in exploring this more.

In a recent survey, I asked players whether they had ever used a VoIP tool. Across the board, the results were fairly stable. About 70% of respondents had used a VoIP tool at some point. There were minor age and gender differences. Male players were slightly more likely to have tried a VoIP tool than female players. And we see a slight decline over age. After a mild peak in the 18-22 age range, we see a gradual decrease.

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I then asked how often they use a VoIP in their actual game-play. Of the players who have tried a VoIP tool, about 40% would indicated that they "often" or "always" used a VoIP tool. If we count these users as regular VoIP users, then combining this data with the previous graph, approximately 30% of all MMO players use a VoIP tool on a regular basis.

I then asked these respondents to rate the helpfulness and overall enjoyableness of the VoIP tool they use. Responses were mostly positive in both measures. There is a mild gender difference. Male players rated these tools as more helpful and enjoyable than female players.

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Factors Related to VoIP Use

These three ratings of usage frequency, helpfulness, and enjoyableness actually correlate to a high degree (cronbach's = .86). Because I was interested in exploring what kinds of players were most likely to have enjoy VoIP tools, I created a composite measure out of these 3 variables. Then I ran a multiple regression using the motivation factors as the predictor variables and the composite measure as the dependent variable. The resulting predictive model was somewhat weak (adjusted r-square = .11), but the best predictor of VoIP use was the Achievement factor (goal-oriented, quick progression), followed by a negatively-signed Immersion factor (stories, character, fantasy world), and then the Socialization factor (chat, gossip, help others).

So players who use VoIP tools tend to be those players who enjoy leveling quickly, who care a lot about how powerful their characters are. On the other hand, they do not care about being immersed into a fantasy world. And finally, they enjoy chatting with their online friends. It's interesting that the adoption of a social tool is more strongly driven by achievement factors rather than social factors, but high-level raids do often necessitate tight coordination, so one might expect that high-level guilds would adopt VoIP tools for these purposes (i.e., giving military commands and following orders).

If this is the case, then one interesting corollary is that VoIP adoption would be higher in MMOs where there is easy access to enjoyable raid content. By raid content, I mean content that requires well-coordinated groups. For example, instances in WoW that are easily finished by pick-up groups (i.e., Stockades, SM, ZF, etc.) would not require the tight coordination afforded by VoIP. In other words, we might expect VoIP adoption to be lower in games that had little content that required this level of tight coordination, if that content was accessible to very few players, or if that content was simply not enjoyable.

Of course, once players adopt VoIP tools and become familiar with them, then they do become social in addition to instrumental tools. VoIP then may play a significant role in creating stronger bonds within a guild. In other words, accessible raid content that is enjoyable may indirectly enhance guild cohesion via the pressure to adopt VoIP tools.

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Social Constraints and Player Reactions to VoIP

I also think there are some social constraints to VoIP adoption within these environments. One thing that I've already mentioned is that it breaks immersion. The ogre voice in your head always sounds better than the ogre voice most people can produce. So mismatch can be a problem in terms of immersion.

But these mismatches can cause other kinds of problems. So for example, given that 50% of all female characters in WoW are played by male players, how might they react to VoIP. One player provided an interesting perspective on this site.

I am a male that has never played an interactive game like WoW before. I will tell you I'm married and 50 years old If I knew then what I know now about WoW I would have never rolled a girl player.

I have found out there are a lot of players that expect to be talking to a girl when they see a female player. I felt uncomfortable in certain situations but I would not lead anyone on and figured no one would ever know since I was in some unknown area of the world.

Now as I get closer to level 60 I'm finding out that game end raid parties use speech/sound software to communicate instead of typing. Because of this I now have to ditch this player and roll a male player so that I fit in with what's expected.

Another thing to keep in mind is that voice carries social markers that can indicate age, social status, ethnic background, and geographical location - markers that could potentially be discriminated against. So for example, a mature 16 year old player who is leading a guild may not want others to know his/her real age. Many Chinese players also complain about being accused of being a gold farmer when they are seen using Mandarin in typed chat. The "English Test" used to screen out potential gold farmers in pick-up groups also reflect this discrimination. VoIP may exacerbate this discrimination based on accented English.

There are also anecdotal cases of players who have VoIP tools but prefer to not use them for fear of alienating their friends who do not have VoIP access. And finally, technology can ostracize people in another way. It is important to remember that enablers can also disable. After all, technology never benefits everyone equally and oftentimes create unintended victims. The following remark on NerfBat.com illustrates one of these cases.

I've also had the good fortune to game with a tight-knit community of deaf MMO players that absolutely dread the coming of VC online, they feel like there's no disability, there's no stigma, there's no barrier. To them, guild-enforced teamspeak, let alone inherent voice chat, just puts all the barriers back up. It's truly upsetting to see the anguish this brings to them.