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The Rules of the Game: Hanging Out in the Lobby


September 18, 1998
 

Once you've 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.

Idle Chat
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.


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