I love listening to people talk while I play competitive videogames—be it a podcast, an audiobook, or a phone call to a friend. I haven’t listened to my virtual teammates in years. When it comes to the online battlefield, I take the kindergarten approach: I share all of my toys, I take a nap break when I start to get cranky, and above all, I don’t talk to strangers.
Nintendo’s latest smash hit, Splatoon, does not include voice chat. I don’t miss it, but I admit that the decision not to include the feature seems odd, given Splatoon’s surface similarity to other competitive console shooters like Halo and Battlefield. I’m used to having to mute irritating players one by one, or even mute my television.
In Splatoon’s multiplayer modes, you can’t talk to anybody—neither enemies nor allies. You can’t even talk to the folks on your friends list. Yet you’re still expected to work as a tight-knit four-person team—even in ranked matches, which are considerably more complicated than the regular “Turf Wars” mode. I keep seeing internet rumblings about how competitive Splatoon players should be able to use voice chat to talk tactics, bark orders and coordinate play-styles. How can we expect to kick squid and paint names if we can’t talk to each other?
In this mystical, castle-on-a-cloud version of gaming’s multiplayer landscape, every virtual interaction we have with our online teammates is about the game at hand, and how best to beat down baddies. Picture our allies as tough but kind, smart but fair, crafty coordinators when it comes to weaponry and varying skill-sets. New players would be welcomed with advice and open minds. Sore losers would either take a break or channel their energy into the game, rather than taking it out on their fellow fighters. Friendships forged in the heat of the moment, bolstered by wins and strengthened by losses, could last a lifetime. Strangers join hands, forming real-life teams and entering tournaments with folks they met on the internet first and, later, in bright-lit stadiums at world championship e-sports events.
Either you cracked a sarcastic smile at that paragraph, or you nodded in naïve recognition. I have actually met people who’ve had experiences not unlike the charmed life I described just now. They downplay the negatives of their past online battles, hand-waving trash-talk as “saltiness” and “a few bad apples,” emphasizing the good friends they’ve met and the war stories they’ve shared. They can ignore insults from strangers because, for them, those insults never went beyond the cursory. Maybe a stranger or two sent a threat to them, but they’ve never received a string of sexual requests sent to their private inbox, nor had a persistent stalker show up to their real-life residence. These few, fortunate souls believe that voice chat results in a net gain—because for them, it has.
Far be it from me to deny the experiences of these folks, but surely they must know that for most other people, voice chat—and text chat and in-game messaging and so on—does not make for a more rewarding videogame experience. For many people, harassment from other players adds a new layer of difficulty to online multiplayer.
All conversations about multiplayer tend to assume the following: that everybody speaks the same language, that everybody feels comfortable talking to strangers, and that communication in some form is mandatory for high-level competition. None of the above is true, although the third is the stickiest.
Would voice chat make Splatoon easier to play competitively? Perhaps—but only for some people. For others, voice chat would make Splatoon significantly more difficult and unpleasant to play.
What about implementing voice chat among friends? Surely even people who don’t want to interact with strangers might still be interested in talking to folks selected to appear in their own online contacts list. Perhaps so—but part of Splatoon’s charm, for me, is that absolutely no talking is required. That doesn’t mean that teamwork, friendship and even nail-biting competition can’t still unfold within its paint-splattered walls. The design of this game favors the socially anxious: you can alleviate your loneliness by participating in a massive virtual space, without any of the social-related stresses. Finally, I can focus on the game without any distractions.
I don’t have any statistics to prove this, but I’m willing to bet that the people who want voice chat the most would also be the people who need to seriously step back and evaluate why others appreciate its absence. In other words, the folks leaving angry comments clamoring for voice chat, claiming that it’s the only thing that will allow their competitive teams to win, might want to reconsider their own perceptions of what teamwork looks like and how their teammates feel about participating in online environments. Most of us have played an online game with a guy (let’s just admit it: usually, it’s a guy) who designates himself the de facto leader, starts shouting unhelpful orders and doling out bad advice. Presumably, this is the type of person who thinks we all want to hear—no, need to hear—what he has to say. If only he could be heard! His team would finally be winning game after game if his leadership could be felt!
Playing Splatoon must feel unnecessarily difficult for that guy. I can only imagine his frustration at his inability to back-seat drive his teammates’ rollers and brushes through alleys and gateways. But has it occurred to him that the lack of his voice might be making the game easier for his allies? Perhaps they might be playing even better because he isn’t shouting at them. Perhaps they might be even likelier to want to play with him again because they have no idea how obnoxious he really is. He should be writing Nintendo a thank-you note.
What’s more, it’s pretty rare that I play a game where feminine-sounding names appear in the multiplayer roster in every single match. We know that a quarter of Call of Duty players are women, but I never hear them on the mic, nor do I see any names that read as feminine in the lobby. Why? Because they don’t want to be singled out.
In Splatoon, I see their names and I wear my own with pride. This is the first game in my entire life that I’ve played as “Maddy,” instead of under a gender-neutral tag. I don’t go on mic in Splatoon, because there is no mic. Even when competitive games do have mics, though, I never go on them—and I never have in the past, either. When I played competitive games as a scrappy teen, I’d use Skype to talk only to my teammates, all of whom began as friends or vetted friends-of-friends. Walking into a multiplayer lobby with a female moniker and speaking in my distinctive treble? That’s never going to happen. Why? Because I’ve seen other women try it, and I don’t like the results.
Splatoon takes all of that off the table, which is why I think so many people have felt free to play it under their actual first names. The game automatically chose my first name as my tag, and although I felt a rush of panic to see it on screen during my first match, I soon realized the rest of the list had populated with several other feminine names. I could have changed my display name, I’m sure, but I haven’t remembered to do so nor have I felt the need. I haven’t been harassed or singled out, even when trying out unfamiliar weapons and tactics. I’ve felt free to learn at my own pace. None of this should be mind-blowing, and yet, it is—especially when taken in comparison to every other multiplayer gaming experience I’ve ever had in my life.
I hope Splatoon never adds voice chat. I think we might all need a time-out from voice chat for a while—perhaps forever. Removing this supposed “communication” tool has actually allowed me to feel like I finally know the people I’m playing—and like they know me, too. That makes the game much easier.
Maddy Myers is Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric at Relay FM.