Second Life, MMORPGs, and conversation

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.