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Body language in World of Warcraft

Body language in World of Warcraft
I recently wrote an article which lightly tickled the social science surrounding nerd rage on WoW, and the internet as a whole, and as is ever the case, I read the comments thoroughly. It often happens that, with more analytical articles such as those, the comments spur a whole new article, and that is exactly what happened here.
DiegoAlvarenga :There is also the lack of body language that is like 97% of our comunication.
Diego makes an excellent point. A huge part of human communication that is lacking from online gaming is the body language, the facial expression, the smiling eyes that tell you something is a joke, all those things. Emoticons can go some distance towards remedying this, but it only extends so far. While not all internet rage is caused by mis-comprehension, some will be.

But I was inspired to address something else entirely, and it's a concept that's slightly tricky to explain, so bear with me. We're diving deeper into the social psychology here!

First we have to allow that our avatars, our characters, our toons, count as "bodies" in some respect. Now, of course, they aren't living, breathing entities, they don't feel pain, they don't have a heartbeat, they don't exist outside of the game-world. That much is obvious. But we inject life into them. We put a little of ourselves into them, even if we view them as puppets that travel through the world on our behalf, rather than a representation of us. You're not convinced? Let me try to persuade you.

Virtual Bodies

I'm not sure if you read the last article, but in it I introduced you to Krueger's concept of Videoplace. This is defined in his 1991 work "Artificial Reality II" as a virtual place, a different reality which anyone reading WoW Insider is likely only too aware of. It's where WoW exists, where Twitter exists, where the internet exists. But we are corporeal within it. As Krueger comments:

...two people who saw their images juxtaposed would interact as though they were actually together. We also observed that people feel at least some of the same self-consciousness about their images that they feel about their bodies. Later experimentation convinced me that people have a proprietary feeling about their image. What happens to it, happens to them.

As an illustration of his theory, Krueger talks about how he and a distant colleague were using a shared projection to discuss a composite image created from their two offices. This was in the late 1980s, remember! Both their hands featured separately on the screen, and as Krueger moved his hand to indicate part of the image they were discussing, his hand overlapped that of his colleague. His colleague moved his hand. Krueger noticed, and tried his luck. Again and again, his colleague moved his hand away from Krueger's virtual "touch".


Virtual Touch

Yes, well, that's all well and good when it's images of actual hands touching one another. But does it even remotely apply to World of Warcraft? I undertook research into just this for my post-grad dissertation, to see if the idea of virtual touch was applicable to WoW, and the results were certainly interesting.

Firstly, I had to think of ways to test it, and there was nothing that came to mind that would be more effective than simply taking my character and bothering other characters with it. The sheer horror that doing such a thing inspired was indicative of the results I was likely to get, and indeed, with a few exceptions, "touching" other characters with my own didn't promote anything but negative feeling. Sure, it's no big deal to run through another character, but anything lasting longer than a moment is usually perceived negatively. So, for example, on the run down to Docks in Isle of Conquest, I would let my character run "on" other characters. They always moved aside to avoid this "contact". I did this sort of thing for months, and I don't have a single incident recorded where someone didn't move. And yes, if I didn't make it clear enough above, I felt terrible about it!

Even worse was stationary situations. I took to the Brawler's Guild on the PTR to test this, as it was somewhere where I could reliably find players stationary, watching, but not AFK, and when I could muster up the mental strength to do so, I popped myself down on the exact same spot. Again, almost all of them moved. And, in my own experience of spending an inordinate amount of time in the Brawler's Guild, I hated it when players did the same to me.

I also witnessed virtual touch being used deliberately to annoy others when I was RPing on a prominent EU RP server, in a pub in Silvermoon City. Players would come in, particularly hunters, and position large pets such as Core Hounds on the bar, on the barstools, on the RPing patrons. Players did their best to ignore the interruption, but their stoic approach only ever held out for so long. I joined in their frustration, but the calls for the player to leave fell largely on deaf ears. I have heard tell, also, of far more severe cases of harassment, which should never be taken lightly. If you have any issues with this do check out Blizzard's harassment advice.
Body language in World of Warcraft
Body Talk

It seems, then, that Krueger's notion that "people have a proprietary feeling about their image. What happens to it, happens to them" might be useable to assert that people put something of themselves into their WoW characters. Whether they move simply because they can't see their character's transmog, or because they feel uncomfortable with having their virtual body in contact with that of another, or simply because it's disconcerting for some other reason, there's something there. There's some tiny part of ourselves that we put into these virtual bodies.

But do we use them to communicate? Absolutely. Before we get into the more complex idea I was talking about at the start of this article, let's just consider how we might use our virtual bodies more simply to convey a message. Have you ever jumped or moved forward or strafed repeatedly to show a tank just how ready you are to go? Have you ever bowed or smiled or roared or otherwise emoted at the opposite faction out in the world to indicate either that you will behave peacefully or to warn them that their days are numbered? Have you ever run off in the right direction and jumped up and down rather than simply typing into chat in BRD? Then you've used your virtual body to communicate.

Lessons in Habitus

OK, let's get a little more involved in the social science theory here. Habitus is a theory coined by Pierre Bordieu, and it refers to lasting, acquired schemes of perception, thought and action. It's tricky to wrap your head around the pure theory, so let's look at an example. Travel is a good one, and something as simple as which is the right side of the road. Here in the UK, we drive on the left. Therefore, our acquired scheme of perception tells us that France and the USA drive on the right, or "wrong" side of the road. This influences our thoughts, as well as our actions -- we don't drive on the right.

Now, this is a very, very simple example of what I'm talking about, but it gives you an idea. Does this translate into WoW? There has to be a structure that the player or character can absorb. A right and a wrong way to be, a right and wrong way to use your virtual body. We already touched on a "wrong" way, with the earlier thoughts on virtual touch, but what are the right ways to be? To move? Can you tell an experienced player from an inexperienced one from where they go and how they get there? From how they use their virtual body?

One of the great difficulties of this kind of research is the necessity to shrug off your inculcation in the natural order of the world you inhabit to spot these differences. To see how you "should" and "shouldn't" behave. But I have noticed a few things that speak volumes about people's perception of a player. One is keyboard turning. Now, of course, I should be clear that there's no right or wrong way to move. This just affects perception, doesn't mean it's true. But when a player slowly keyboard shuffles their way through 180 degrees on the spot? That's an indication they might not be mouse turning. People who backpedal? Similar associations are made. Fluidity of movement is prized in almost every culture, and our virtual world is no exception.

What else? Running in RP situations. Standing slightly behind the tanks in dungeons, raids and the like. These are clearer examples of habitus than the above, as they indicate a learned competency being exhibited with a virtual body. By standing slightly behind the tank, players are communicating that they know their role, that they will not infringe on the tank's. And a knowledgeable tank might move slightly in front of the group when lining up for a pull.

So have I convinced you that body language does exist in WoW? And have you seen any evidence of it in your travels through Azeroth?

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion

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