Non-Verbal Communication as a Tool to Combat Harassment

[Originally published June 5, 2016]

Splatoon sparked controversy last year when PR revealed that the game would not include voice chat. Forums and online publications spammed the internet with claims that this would diminish the tactical potential of group play, and ultimately take away from the overall experience. God forbid the masses don’t have yet another outlet to spew threats and bigoted garbage. Nintendo stuck to their paint-shooting guns, and released the game without voice chat.

Now let me be clear – I don’t think voice chat is necessary, but I do believe communication is. If a developer is going to take away voice chat, they need to fill the void with something. I don’t care what, but players need a language by which they can discuss and coordinate goals. This isn’t just an important aspect to games – it’s also an intrinsic, human tool that has shaped and influenced the way that we categorize and nationalize ourselves. Language is so stupid important, you guys. That’s why games that replaced voice chat with other means of communication have ingrained themselves in the zeitgeist of gamer culture.

Journey was an explicit experiment in human communique, where any and all exclamation, command, and question had to take the form of chirps. If you chose to play with a stranger you met on your travels through the arid wastes, a language would form between you. Maybe it was based on the number of chirps you made, or perhaps the rate at which you sent them out. Dark Souls is another great example of non-verbal communication. Player interaction in Dark Souls largely consists of gestures and actions meant to convey meaning and message. You may have read the recent Rock Paper Shotgun article detailing Dark Souls fight clubs, and how players used the language tools in Dark Souls 3 to organize these fight clubs. This represents but a small slice of the potential to be found in non-verbal language. It proves that you don’t need English, Spanish, Arabic, etc. to maintain human conversation. Give people the tools, and they’ll fill in the blanks.

I think this has broader uses beyond proving a point about humanity’s ability to create conversation. From conversation comes dialogue, and dialogue is a huge problem that our industry faces. Death and rape threats run rampant. Even if it’s a small portion of our population perpetrating this harassment, these folks are loud and vitriolic enough to be a problem that demands attention. Ignoring, blocking, or reporting the trolls isn’t enough. We as a community have a responsibility to cultivate positive dialogue within our herd. I think the abstraction of language can be used to push us in a more positive direction.

As it stands, this is a pretty high-concept idea, so please critique my points and ideas in the comments. This is an extremely rough argument in need of quantification and qualification, and the best way to go about that is via communal discussion.

Part of cultivating a more positive tone and tenor in online interaction starts with diminishing the opportunities people have to express hate. I truly believe more games should exchange the voice chat in preference to a Dark Souls or Journey-like system. Maybe even create a new one. I’ll admit – this is a difficult problem to solve. How do we capture the complexity of tactical conversation within an abstracted language? Do you design the game around the language, or vice versa? How do you create a language that lacks the capacity to express bigotry or threats, while still possessing the finesse required to communicate nuanced, real-time goals? It’s hard, but it would be worth it in the end. Diminish the amount of opportunities for people to hurt and harangue with the vicious potential of our spoken languages, and you push the tone in a more positive direction.

I wouldn’t suggest that we take existing systems – comment sections, twitter, etc. – and change them to fit this metric. That seems equal parts unlikely and unfeasible. I also want to make clear that I’m not saying we should eliminate voice chat altogether. We should never seek to eliminate an entire style of communication. That being said, I don’t see the problem with pushing for newer platforms to use more abstract language. Again, institutions would have to approach this keeping several theoretical issues in mind. How does one preserve the finesse and nuance of dialogue without providing the opportunity for rape and death threats? The squash emoji has come to represent a penis. Combine that with a vaginal object and an angry face, and you have a rape threat. Throw up an angry face and a gun, and you’ve got a death threat. Goofy, yes, but a threat nonetheless. So do we eliminate phallic/vaginal objects? Do we eliminate objects of violence? Voicing distaste or anger isn’t the problem – voicing these feelings in a threatening manner’s the issue. How do we preserve anger and frustration, but in a form that doesn’t allow for harassment, or at least diminishes its severity? These are definitely questions that come into play when creating an abstract form of expression and communication, but I think these offer better solutions than the alternatives we’ve pursued. Censoring certain words doesn’t work as well as it should, and presents its own problems – e.g. censoring the word ‘kill’ isn’t really a feasible action in a medium filled with games about killing. Getting rid of comment sections entirely seems – to me – a dangerous choice. I’m no language theorist – clearly – but it seems that abstractions at least have the potential to progress towards better online interaction.

To end, an anecdote:

I was playing Dark Souls 2 PvP a while ago. Fun game. My opponent and I exchanged blows, drew blood, and I used my estus flask to heal. He immediately leapt away, and repeatedly gestured ‘no no no.’ Clearly, he was upset at my estus etiquette. I ignored him – cos I’m a loose cannon, who won’t do as he’s told, screw the man, etc. etc. etc. – and eventually won. Then about 3 minutes later, I got a message from my opponent, chock full of homophobia and colorfully worded threats. It was a pretty long message – he clearly put a lot of effort into it – but it was redundant. He’d already expressed his discontent – ‘no no no’ – and I got to take it into account and ignore it. I’d already understood his frustration, but didn’t feel threatened until I received this message.

I like to think I have pretty thick skin. Strangers on the internet don’t frighten me much. Hopefully, they don’t scare you either. But I’m not everyone, and neither are you. This stuff gets to people, and we can’t rely on the internet to remember or respect that. Again, I’m not saying we can’t have anger, or get upset. There is, however, a layer of protection to be offered in the abstraction of language. An opaque barrier of understanding between a raging internet user and the target of their ire, that allows for safely muted expression. We’re at a stage where we need to do more – take action against the trolls. I think this is but one avenue we should explore.

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