When I started whining to my friends about how bad I was going to be at WoW, my principal complaint was that I had no idea how to play and chat at the same time. I was sure I was going to be the worst player ever: I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone! Two weeks later, I still have no idea how to chat effectively. I think we’ve all struggled with the chat box, and I’ve personally typed “wwwwwwwwwawwwd” into the chat a million times due to my forgetfulness. But what made me feel better is the fact that it seems like very few people chat while they play. Yet, I’ve still muttered “sorry” (out loud) to a random dungeon group when I’ve known that they were waiting for me to hurry up, and I’ve grinned stupidly when I’ve known they were excited at being able to go through so fast. This was all just a subconscious reaction until I thought about it and realized: this machinic, low graphics computer game manages to show that the core of human communication is body language. So, I’m going to focus on what the chat box doesn’t say.
Yes, the chat box is very useful in conversing with players specifically. If you want to engage in small talk with the guild, or tell your friend about the stupid NPCs that just killed you, the chat box is the only way to do it. You can even emote through the chat box, and mimic preset body movements that will be performed for you, but all these forms of “explicit” communication that are available just reinforce my point. In the context of the WoW gameplay (questing, dungeons, etc.), I’ve found that the chat box is really quite unnecessary. All you need to communicate is your movement keys, the space bar, and your mouse.
Story time: my first time running a dungeon with my tank character, I was with a group of at least three obviously experienced players. At the time, I was a tiny level 15 with awful armor, obviously a newbie. I was terrified of disappointing them, and I kept nervously glancing at the chat box, just waiting for it to blow up with my mistakes. Of course, nothing ever showed up.
After the first few minutes, I stopped paying attention to it, because my teammates didn’t need it to admonish me. The leader of the group (and by extension, the rest of the team) would run until they were just on the verge of the next group of enemies, and then they would wait for me to come in. The first time, it took me a minute to get it, but the meaning was obvious: “here we are, now go do your job!” It was really helpful, and it was just as effective as typing the words out would have been. As our trek through the dungeon continued, the entire group still adhered to this waiting game very patiently, and it was obvious that they were making a concentrated effort to be kind to me. If they had typed into the chat box instead, even if they had explicitly told me that I shouldn’t feel bad, I would have felt alienated and guilty instead of feeling like a part of the team. It’s easy to lie through words, but there was no mistaking the intent of their patient waiting.
I feel that there are countless examples of this wordless communication. In a different dungeon run, our group was doing really well, and at some point one of the players started erratically jumping while walking to the next group of enemies. I’m sure that we’ve all either seen this done or done it ourselves, but there’s really no point to it other than to show a buoyant sense of ridiculousness (in this case, elation at being awesome at this dungeon). So naturally, everyone in the group jumped around and shared a moment of happy camaraderie. It felt much more natural than typing something into the chat box, and it was something we could do while continuing on to our destination. Like in real life, smiling at someone feels way more real than saying “this is awesome,” especially if you’re running at the same time.
In contrast to that instance, while I was waiting for a group of bandits to respawn so I could kill them for a quest, another player came in right next to me. It was clear that they was also waiting for the same quest, and I naturally felt animosity towards them because they were a higher level than me, and so they would almost definitely get the first hit in and finish the quest. So, I turned my character around to face them and got uncomfortably close. After that, they turned to face me, too. Without saying anything, it was clear that we were glaring at each other, in a standoff about who would get the bandits. Looking back, this felt way more natural to me than saying anything. In fact, if I had typed anything in the chat box, I’m sure I would have taken back my first reaction and just let the player have the bandits without a fight.
Since WoW’s chat box is so difficult to use (and impossible to use while moving with the typical WASD keys), it makes a statement about the effectiveness of body language as communication. Without easy access to words, communication becomes more effective, honest, and natural. If this is true in a video game played with strangers, it’s definitely true in the real world.