22 March 2010

Chatroulette and video-chat

It might be a bit too early to talk about Chatroulette as the website is still at the center of a lot of controversy, buzz and viral videos/phenomena. However, I think current Chatroulette issues can provide interesting insights about what to do or not to do in potential MMOG video-chat systems.


You should try Chatroulette to make your own opinion. Danah Boyd explains that teens usually use Internet to connect with people they know, bu Chatroulette brings back the old randomness of the Internet when wandering anonymously in chat rooms was what kids did. She also adds that there are still a small percentage of folks out there looking for some amusement because they’re bored and they want to connect with randomness, folks who recognize the joy of meeting strangers in a safer space than most physical spaces where that’s possible. I realize that this creates the potential for seeing some pretty gross and/or problematic things and I certainly don’t want to dismiss that, but I’m pretty certain that teens are responding the same way that I’m responding – by clicking Next. Is that ideal? Probably not. For Yann Leroux, Chatroulette is the opposite of social networking: it is not at all building a social relationship, it is a social deconstruction. Indeed, even though people show their face, Chatroulette stays a very anonymous place. No doubt people like to scroll faces pressing f9. But Chatroulette also made me wonder how long is Internet going to stay in this moral panic state. Sarita Yardi explains that We’re still searching for the right balance between protecting our own privacy and being able to live out our social lives online without feeling that the rest of the world is out to get us. I feel like MMOG can be instrumental in setting up this balance.

But before talking about MMOG, it is worth looking at some recent uses of Chatroulette. Merton improvised piano pieces to the people he met on Chatroulette. The Merton viral video inspired other people such as Looking for Merton#1, or even Ben Folds who improvised on Chatroulette during a 2000-fan live improvisation concert. The Nurses even streamed their live concert on Chatroulette.

Video-chat in MMOG

Technically speaking, MMOG already feature voice-chat. It will not be long before video-chat becomes supported, or even the norm. A software could detect if a player is smiling at her/his webcam, and transmits this data to the game, making her/his avatar smile. Such software system could also transform "where players look in the screen" into "which direction the avatar is currently looking to". More realistic and more social. I am sure this is technically feasible and scalable: Chatroulette is a very simple Peer-to-Peer Flash website using RTMFP. AAA MMOG could include this same Peer-to-Peer system in their client code. It would be surprising that CCP developers could include an in-game browser to EVE Online, while peer-to-peer-based webcam discussions could not be implemented between players.

Not a significant source of chat, from Virtual Shackles.

Socially speaking, I tend to follow Ami Bruckman: either teens over time will learn to be more careful with their personal information or we as a culture will learn to be more tolerant of what people do in their personal lives, especially as youth. In any of those cases, I think the magic circle will prevent MMOG from having video-chat channels spoiled like Chatroulette by exhibitionists, drunks or voyeurs: people come to play. Obviously, MMOG also have their stories, but way less than Chatroulette. While one may wonder what the norm is on Chatroulette, playing or chatting is definitely the norm in MMOG, not exhibitionism. Several reasons:

  • Playing keeps one's hands busy (although some eat, but that is digressing)
  • In-game, there is nexting is impossible. A bothering avatar stays where it is. One can choose to ignore someone else's utterances, but /ignore does not kick a player out of one's field of vision.
  • Reporting is much more possible: in Chatroulette, exhibitionists go too fast for me to be able to report them. In MMOG, there is usually a minimum 5 to 10 seconds during which one can not disconnect one's avatar.
  • And it's too much hassle to go through an application process and eventually pay $15 per month simply to show one's anatomy to the world.

At the moment, MMOG players, and most people in our society, are not really ready to let their webcam show their emotions or reactions, even if it is through an avatar. However, video-chat in MMOG means a lot of interesting challenges. Technically, this means improving/implementing in-game character facial expression, realistic or not, sensitive webcams, filters, etc. As for game design: Which member of the group is this NPC looking to? What is this dumb NPC trying to tell me in looking at this particular equipment piece of mine? Which zone of the map is my partner pointing at?

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