constructed your lobby for the sole purpose of putting people together
to play your game, you may find, much to your dismay, that they're spending
more time hanging out on the door step talking, than actually playing.
It feels like an insult. These people aren't here to chit-chat. They're
here to play your game, the one you worked so damn hard on. Why are they
spending so much time talking?
When I first started hanging around the Imagination Network seriously,
I found it pretty annoying that I would go into a backgammon room full
of people, and it would take me half an hour to find someone who actually
wanted to play a game. They were all chatting. It took me a while to get
into it, and to realize that the games were acting as much as an excuse
to get people together as actual games. And that was OK. People where
having fun, and when they finally got into a game, they enjoyed it more.
Beyond that, the people kept coming back, as much for the community as
the games themselves.
So let's spend the next little bit chatting about chat, and what makes
the conversations flow.
Preceding the days of the Web and universal email, chat was the bastard
king. Little as they liked to admit it, a disproportionate percentage
of CompuServe and AOL users spent hours in chats. This, during a time
when AOL and Compuserve charged by the hour. Chat was real-time, inefficient
as hell, and tended to be brought down by the most puerile person in the
room. It was also both incredibly fun and incredibly addictive. Here were
new friends every night who hadn't heard your stories before, who cared
about the real digital you, and for whom you could reinvent yourself each
time. This led to a couple of interesting phenomenon: The Big Truth and
The Big Lie.
The Big Lie
The first strange behavior that a person exhibits in on-line chatting
is the tendency to lie like a rug. People increase in size and accomplishment.
They try on their ideal selves to see how people react. They hide behind
masks on screen and spit out the vilest bile they can, acting in a way
they wish they had the guts to act in real life without fear of the consequences.
They even and quite frequently change their sex, just to see how the other
half lives and to escape the flaws that come with their gender. The women
feel pestered from getting too much attention, the guys are sick of sitting
in the digital corner with no one talk to. Playing "Guess that Gender"
is one of my all time favorite games in digital space. "Hi, I'm an 18
year old who works at Hooters" is a dead give-away that you are talking
to a 15-year old boy in the Midwest.
The Big Truth
The flip side is that the digital realm provides enough safety to tell
the truth. Maybe it is the distance introduced by the computer, the sense
that this is a stranger that you could chose never to see again, but many
people find themselves telling things to an online stranger that they
would never tell their closest friends. Call it the "stranger on the long
bus ride" syndrome. Because the two of strangers are probably going to
pass forever out of each other's lives, they find themselves saying all
the things they are too afraid to say under normal circumstances. They
develop trust faster, open farther, and seek deeper contact. There have
been a number of Geraldo level talk shows posing the supposedly shattering
question, "Is having an affair in a chat room really cheating?" A tricky
one indeed. Many hearts are laid on the floor, but with the tether of
the Power-switch to pull the heart back.
I know I've slipped over to romance chat and seemingly away from gaming,
but check it out: unless your game is such that it turns off all girls,
(increasingly hard to do with the generation that grew up with both sexes
playing the games,) you'll find that this theme is played out a lot in
the interactions. The hope of romance/friendship, more then any other
factor, keeps people coming back, night after night.
WARNING: Do Not Mix These Chemicals!
The biggest problem comes when "The Big Truth" and "The Big Lie" mix.
It's devastating for someone who has poured his heart out to
his ideal woman only to find out that he's been talking to our friend
the 15-year old. His reaction will be one of profound embarrassment and
is likely to leave the system forever.
A good friend of mine wanted to see what it was like to get all the attention,
and created a girl character in the early 80's. The character, let's call
here "Kate T," to protect the guilty, was so well fleshed out and charming,
that she actually got a proposal of marriage from one of the guys that
she'd been flirting with. I think my friend's beard (no pun intended)
would not have worked well with a wedding dress. It seems too weird, but
this is actually a true story, and shows how explosive these two states
can become when they intersect.
Next week, we'll look at the Mechanics of Chatting.