Good Life

Student researchers look at the language behind video game

Michelle Shade and her friend Ben Rowles researched how video gamers communicate with each other. They have earned a spot to talk at Digital Humanities 2016 in Krakow, Poland, next month.
Michelle Shade and her friend Ben Rowles researched how video gamers communicate with each other. They have earned a spot to talk at Digital Humanities 2016 in Krakow, Poland, next month. adrey@centredaily.com

This one goes out to all of the folks whose mothers told them that they would never get anywhere sitting in front of the television playing video games all day.

Penn State students Michelle Shade and Ben Rowles are in the process of raising money to travel to Digital Humanities 2016 in Krakow, Poland — the biggest conference of its kind and an auspicious start to the careers of two promising young researchers.

And they owe it all to video games.

Way back before the prospect of going to Poland was even a possibility, Shade and Rowles applied to and were selected for a Bednar undergraduate internship, which funded them to work full time on a collaborative digital humanities project of their choosing.

Eventually, they ended up at “World of Warcraft.”

“Ben and I lucked out because our interests were very similar,” Shade said.

In terms of their familiarity with the game, however, they may as well have been from different worl- Err … planets.

The closest that Rowles had ever come to playing “World of Warcraft” was a childhood encounter with “Warcraft 3,” a strategy game set in the same fictional universes.

Shade, on the other hand, considers herself a fan — not hardcore, mind you — but knowledgeable enough to have to explain things very, very slowly to features reporters attempting to write a story about the intricacies of both the game and the culture that it has inspired.

What that conversation boiled down to is that many “WoW” users opt to expand their playing experience beyond the narrative framework established by the game’s authors.

They role play.

Like an actor trying to inhabit a part, players craft elaborate back stories for their characters — places they’ve been, loves they’ve lost, even their patterns of speech.

The latter played a fundamental role in Shade’s and Rowles’ study, an in-depth look at the player-created narratives populating across the lands of “WoW.”

For Shade, who is earning her B.S. in sociology and B.A. in comparative literature, the project was an opportunity to put some of those skills in the real — and virtual — world to use.

“For me, it was like looking at a different culture and their language use,” Shade said.

For anyone else, it might have been more like reading a set of encyclopedias cover to cover. Shade and Rowles sifted through more than 7,000 pages of game transcripts submitted by players from their “WoW” forums.

The transcripts, from both role-play and non-role-play groups alike, were analyzed for word usage.

Much of the role-players’ text chat was not dialogue but descriptions of their avatars’ body language. For example, a player might type, ‘Tarcanus shrugs Hadroneth with an impish grin.’

Ben Rowles

Non-role-play gamers tended to use words directed at getting what they needed to advance in the actual game — weapons or support of some kind.

“Much of the role-players’ text chat was not dialogue but descriptions of their avatars’ body language. For example, a player might type, ‘Tarcanus shrugs Hadroneth with an impish grin,’ ” Rowles said.

Role players used words that were character specific, directed toward forwarding and expanding ongoing original storylines that had been scripted over the course of years. Think “Days of Our Lives” or “Guiding Light,” but with better fights and less cast turnover.

The role players are creating their own game where the rewards aren’t necessarily of a quantitative nature.

“They’re not rewarded for it in game. It’s something they are rewarded for socially and in their own group,” Shade said.

As for the real world implications, Rowles said that their research highlights the importance of nonverbal cues in communication. He thinks that video game designers could cater to players’ needs by including more options for gestures, movements or emotes.

Rowles and Shade will present their findings in Poland come July — if they can get the money to make the trip.

Interested parties can contribute toward their $2,000 goal by visiting their GoFundMe page at: https://www.gofundme .com/dh2016-vgnarrative

Frank Ready: 814-231-4620, @fjready

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