When grunts become audible

So anyway, while on the phone a few days ago with a journalist, we got to discussing the topic of voice in virtual space and how it would affect things. How would it change the way users interact in a place like Second Life, for instance? What impact would it have on their individual experiences and the world as a whole?

At any rate, much to my surprise, I blurted out the word “performance” during one of my off-the-cuff comments regarding communication inside virtual worlds like SL.

Let me explain. In the particular part of the conversation where I used the word in question, I was generally making a speculative comparison between text communication and voice. I told the reporter yeah, if voice was ever integrated into Second life, I would be generally highly enthused about trying it. But I also would be a little skeptical, since many users inside SL (perhaps myself included) have yet to even learn how to communicate and interact competently using text. Now we’re going to have voice? Then I said to her that voice was a totally different type of performance.

Holy shit, I thought to myself after I used that word. I mean, I was taken aback in part because I had just finished telling the reporter that I wasn’t a role-player inside Second Life. I had explained that my avatar was a genuine extension of the real-life me, and that I didn’t make things up while I was behind the keyboard. I projected myself sincerely as Cheri Horton. I explained that Cheri was basically the virtual incarnation of me. But there I went and used the word “performance.”

Why? Well, what sprang to mind while I was mulling the impact of voice in SL was how it would affect my BDSM business Dashwood Dungeon. I mean, I consider myself partly as a performer when I work as a domme. It’s true. Virtual BDSM is a performance, I believe. Heck, I think the same applies for real-life BDSM in a way, as well as for just life in general — whether it be in virtual space or real-world space. (All of life’s a stage and all that.)

Anyway, don’t get me wrong, there are sincere emotions involved when I domme in SL. For example, sadism comes naturally to me, and I express that when I engage in real-life BDSM. In fact, I am a natural born sadist, I‘ll have you know. I’ve been one for as long as I can remember. I think it may even date back to pre-pubescence. My point being, that the sadistic dimension of Cheri Horton is entirely authentic.

But at the same time, while virtually domming, it’s still important to take command of the ‘stage’ and orchestrate the experience gracefully and craftily in order for it to be immersive and rewarding for the client, namely the sub who is paying for the session. This is particularly important during virtual S&M, since there is an absence of pain in a virtual setting (unless you hook up some clever output device to your PC.)

So yeah, part of my concern about voice arose in light of the fact that I’m generally just becoming proficient at being a dominatrix using two key interface features: text and visual displays; it takes a skillful mix of both to truly rock somebody’s world. Even timing is important. So if voice were tossed into the mix, it could cause a setback for me of sorts.

Mind you, my concern does not stem from the fact that I’m genetically male in real life and my true voice wouldn’t fit my female avatar. No. Voice fonts would take care of that. The issue would be that voice would be something entirely new to master. Even if such a feature were optional, I’d like to be able to use it if necessary. And use it competently and effectively.

Which brings me to this thought: When I stop to ponder the issue of communication inside virtual worlds, I am really struck at how much more polishing up we have to do yet. I mean, many people still express themselves pretty primitively when trying to get across to one other using text. We’re still like cavemen and cavewomen in that regard. What’s going to happen when or if voice comes along? What was tantamount to grunting in the form of the written word now expands into audibility? Or is it the case that voice communication is more intuitive and it therefore wouldn’t be much of an issue?

Regardless, it’s weird, because we go through all kinds of schooling to learn how to communicate adequately — and even expertly — in the real world. Will there eventually be a similar educational emphasis aimed at grooming us to be socially adept inside virtual worlds?

UPDATE: Come to think of it, I think many people who engage in simulated sex in Second Life might be impacted similarly to what I anticipate for myself as far as my BDSM business, since role-play and sex are so tightly connected in SL. That is to say, much of the sexual activity seems to be rooted in role-play, which is a type of performance. Therefore, I think if voice were integrated into SL, the change would be felt pretty profoundly by those whose sexual role-play is an important part of their in-world experience. No? Just a thought that just hit me…


  1. Comment by Kelly on June 19, 2006 4:08 am

    As I mentioned in the Turning on the Player panel, I see voice in sex games as an “add-on” feature that will only be good for those who a) genuinely want to use it for *their* gratification AND b) have a high degree of comfort improvising dialogue and thinking on their feet while still being articulate, emotive, and creative. The first criterion is easier– many people love voices, esp. in sex– but the second issue presents the real problem.

    As an MMOEG designer I think of myself as a bit of a party planner. My job is making sure everyone who comes to the party has sexy fun (by whatever their definition of it is (be that flirting only, immediate no-strings sex play, building casual relationships, having emotionally intimate relationships, or simply griefing (my thoughts on how griefers are actually specific kinds of sadists trying in vain to get their fun in virtual worlds that weren’t designed for their needs is another issue, but there are always players who come to bug others). I have to plan this party for the full spectrum of human sexual activity thought with the stipulation that no one touches each other physically. Kind of hard to do. But the main, proven tools in your arsenal *include* voice. Voice chat, podcasts, audio blogs, etc. are all good options but they come with the limitations of real life. Are most people good public speakers or stage performers? Not really. How about improv and thinking on their feet creatively? Not so much. What about good timing and inflection and overcoming background noise/interruptions, privacy concerns for people who don’t live alone, and the quality of these so-called ‘voice fonts’ much of which is pie in the sky (and the using of which will rub many players as disengenuous and a turn off of sorts). Text has it’s flaws but in my party planning I’ve found it also has strengths that make it superior to voice, for online erotic fantasy anyways:

    * people know it and many have been cybering since the mid 1990’s (self included)
    * timing is not lethal, people will forgive a pause for something good and people understand the occasional lag/interruption/mysterious glitch in rhythm
    * total attention is not needed. Chatting with 4 people in 3 application windows? None will know if you keep your windows straight- even try to manage one voice chat plus one text chat and watch your performance in both suffer
    * for good writers, text shows your best side (for good improv/voice performers, voice shows their best side, but like I said, fewer people seem gifted with that, hence public speaking is many people’s top fear)
    * sexual inhibition will be stronger for many people if they have to literally speak their desires, and verbalizing sensitive or kinky fantasies might just be intimidating enough to stifle some people’s creativity and self expression in a virtual erotic situation. When you are behind text, the symbolism of it is armor protecting people from very real feelings of shame, guilt, inadequacy, performance anxiety, and all the crap that comes up in real life. Some will still have issues like that with text but I personally feel that text is a better “sandbox” for people to really role-play and try things that test their real world boundaries.

    So… yeah, it’s a loaded issue that shouldn’t be taken as lightly as “people like voice so let’s add voice as a standard feature” since that gives players permission to demand the use of voice for all sorts of unsexy things (verifying who you *really* are, whatever that means or trying to grief or upset you in a way that they can hear your real world reaction without the saftey filter of text reply, etc.). It makes voice a dominant theme when I don’t see evidence of it working well as a dominant theme in any major virtual adult OR online gaming community to date. Let xbox live serve as a warning of what happens when (some) everyday people combine headsets with less than charming social skills.

    My statement on the player turn-on panel that “social ineptitude is genderless” applies broadly. People in MMOEGs need our support to have the best sexy experience they can have– giving them tools that are hard to use *well* can be worse than skipping the feature altogether. Until it’s proven otherwise, I relegate voice and webcams in game worlds to “add-on” features a subsection of your player population will pay for and actually use well (enough for their own enjoyment of it). The GGA article I cited at the con also expresses some concerns about voice, from Richard Bartle. :)

  2. Comment by Noche on June 19, 2006 11:49 pm

    sexual inhibition will be stronger for many people if they have to literally speak their desires, and verbalizing sensitive or kinky fantasies might just be intimidating enough to stifle some people’s creativity and self expression in a virtual erotic situation.

    Yeah, if voice were to diminish a virtual environment’s capacity to allow people to leave behind their inhibitions (and I foresee that would in fact be the case), it would be a HUGE shame, especially since I consider that to be one of the most wonderful benefits of virtual spaces — they do a lot to allow people to just let go and entertain their true desires. That’s one of the big reasons why I like SL so much - I enjoy interacting in a place where one is afforded a more candid glimpse at true human nature.

    Still, I guess a point we probably should keep in mind about Second Life (versus massively multiplayer online erotic games) is that it is more than a place for virtual sex — although SL nookie is in fact very popular, as I am sure you know. You also are probably aware that as the physical world further expands into virtual space (in this instance, the virtual space of SL), it is increasingly becoming a place for all sorts of endeavors, such as commerce and education. The individuals involved in these types of uses place little to no emphasis on role play, one would think, so it would likely be no skin off their backs if voice were to be added. In fact, I’m guessing they’d welcome it with open arms, as opposed to how voice may impact immersion for SL inhabitants whose experiences are enriched significantly by fantasy, eg. furries and other non- or semi-human virtual incarnations, as well as residents who engage in elaborate simulated sex and fetishes.

    Perhaps an important question to ask is, What kind of a world would Linden Lab be trying to nurture or nudge along if it ever decided to add voice as a standard feature? What would the motivation be? I know LL’s motto is “Your World. Your Imagination,” but with a step as huge as adding voice, that doesn’t exactly reflect a totally hands-off policy when it comes to allowing Grid culture to blossom where it may. No? I mean, there are going to be consequences that can have a great impact on in-world dynamics and even demographics.

    Somehow, I doubt SL is moving solely in the direction that would emulate the types of virtual spaces that Richard Bartle alluded to in that piece you provided the link for (which addressed voice in MMOs.) From what I understand, Bartle was describing environments relegated for the exclusive purpose of getting away from the physical world:

    Virtual worlds are just that, virtual. People play them to get away from reality; they play them to get away from themselves. In a virtual world, you can be someone else. By being someone else, you can become a better you.

    And then, alluding to injecting voice, he adds: If you introduce reality into a virtual world, it’s no longer a virtual world: it’s an adjunct to the real world.

    Bingo. I agree totally (unless the voice integration is done really well and seamlessly.) And I think that specific statement is very telling as far as Second Life’s current course, which I perceive to be somewhat ambiguous and torn at the moment. It appears it is moving in two directions: on the one hand, it wants to be a virtual world in its purest sense, and on the other hand, it also wants to be an adjunct to the real world, it seems. Whether it can do both — and do both well — has yet to be decided, I guess. I personally see value in both.

    But yeah, Kelly, it seems you and I are on the same page as far as our thoughts on this matter. I agree with everything you said pretty much, from the issues involving improvising dialogue, to the fact that it’s a “loaded issue” that shouldn’t be taken lightly, to the challenges of juggling text chat with voice chat.

    That’s far from all I have to say on the topic. I’ll definitely be covering this closely.

    PS: That Bartle piece was very good.

  3. Comment by Kelly on June 20, 2006 8:34 am

    Great points Noche. SL really does have it’s work cut out for it being everything to everyone… but that is what makes it unique among the more narrowly defined worlds.

    Even virtual worlds need a “generalist” but I do believe there is ample room for specialized virtual worlds to do what can’t be done very well in the general worlds.

    Bartle always seems to be thinking mostly of the sort of rpg worlds he is associated with and I think there are a lot of non-game virtual world applications (like SL, and probably upcoming social VR world experiments like Naughty America: The Game) that have seriously different concerns than the traditional rpg genre MMOs. I agree with your observation that his viewpoint doesn’t seem to cover all of SL. Even in sex play, there are definitely people who would love it and use it well.

    It will be impossible for any world to be one-size-fits-all and I think SL has yet to find it’s real niche. We know it has nearly 200k users now but what they don’t tell us is how many free client downloads they’ve had/how many users bailed after a short visit (many people I know left after only one time in-game). It’s definitely good to find a market and cater to them. It will be interesting to see if growth in one direction kills off growth in another since they are so ambiguous with what they want to be or who they want to play it.

  4. Comment by CandyO on June 21, 2006 12:53 pm

    As a fairly new player in SL- I have to say that voice would kill it. I beta’d for there.com- & as soon as voice came in, it ruined it for me. I hope they never, ever do it in SL.

    Of all that has been pondered here, & elsewhere, on this topic- what I don’t see is any reference to how our minds & creative thoughts work.

    The spoken word & the written word are so very different as to be two, unique languages- or modes of expression. They come from different parts of us. This became clear to me when the formally eloquent & textually adept people bought into voice in There…

    …all gone. Voice is the baser, easier, “fast-food” of the two. Text is thought & commposition. That’s really all there is to it.

    Keep voice out of SL. I like to know who I’m truly reaching- their mind, ideas, desires as written thoughts…it’s closer to the “real” person”- it’s much more complex than simply uttering whatever thought drops into your head.


  5. Pingback by Apogeevr » Blog Archive » Courting Vivox for a demo on June 22, 2006 10:00 pm

    […] By the way, Tony Walsh at Clickable Culture wrote a good post back in April dealing with Vivox in Second Life. Definitely worth a read, if you haven’t already. And there’s an Apogeevr post here, in case you’re in the mood to join me in pondering how voice in virtual space may affect users, including their immersion and their cybersexual experiences in Second Life. […]

  6. Pingback by Apogeevr » Blog Archive » Voice can make you flop in a virtual world on July 9, 2006 6:49 pm

    […] Here’s an easy-to-read chart displaying the differences between the paid and free versions of the Screaming Bee software. I also posted a photo on Flickr with some notes describing some of the MorphVOX Jr. features. For those unfamiliar with Flickr, you can read the notes by hovering your mouse arrow over the image. Additionally, here are related Apogeevr posts: When Grunts Become Audible; Courting Vivox for a Demo. […]

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