The problem with emotes
Games have always been a powerful social activity. Yes, even video games. Gameplay itself can be socially rewarding: people tend to crave competition, and cooperative games foster a shared sense of victory or defeat. But gameplay can also fade into the background and become ancillary to other social benefits. Games can occupy parts of our minds and bodies while freeing others for conversation. Games can serve as a catalyst to a new friendship, a reason to gather with old friends, or a shared interest with a stranger. This has been true as long as we've played games. New technology could never swoop in and change that overnight. Nor would we want it to! Technology may alter the landscape of interaction, but the social pretext to gaming remains stubbornly unburied.
Imagine a multiplayer video game that provided no means of interaction with the strangers you're hunting (or helping). Starcraft without "gg". Team Fortress without "Need a dispenser here!" Moonbase Alpha without "john madden!" Lifeless. Even Call of Duty would be a fundamentally different game (for better or worse) if there were no one shouting insults over the microphone.
Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = ?
While allowing interaction beyond the bounds of the game's mechanics is an important cornerstone of gaming, it does not come without pitfalls. Any time you begin to wonder if we, as a species, have ascended the ladder of evolution towards ultimate enlightenment, simply pop into a game of the AAA FPS-du-jour to receive a heaping spoonful of vitriol and abuse. But what can you do? Any countermeasure that applies to all players inevitably reinvokes the psychic trauma of that time the whole class lost recess because Little Johnny Lewis couldn't stop talking during lesson. So instead we advocate self-policing and creating a positive culture, and this is all well and good. At the end of the day, though, certain games and thus certain players have to shrug and bear the slings and arrows of outrageous asshats.
Of course unfiltered communication is not always acceptable. Games marketed to young and/or diverse players often strictly limit the scope of potential interaction to seal off a toxic atmosphere. The product can be made safer, of course, but you do risk choking the social life out of a game. It's a risk, but not inevitable. Among Journey's most critically acclaimed features is that you can only communicate with wordless chirps. Elegant, effective, and perfectly fitting.
Not all games nail the social component, and the big studios are not exempt. I would put Blizzard's Hearthstone in this category. (If you haven't tried it, it's a great free-to-play game that scratches that old Magic: The Gathering itch, but with streamlined mechanics.) Desiring, I'm sure, to market this game to all comers, Blizzard put a heavy lid on the social options. Any time during the course of a game you can select one of six emotes which will be given voice by your avatar. Seven emotes if you count the Concede button.
It's a fair system, really. The only real abuse vector is spamming emotes, but they are rate-limited and you always have the option of muting your opponent. I'd give it points for innovation and artfulness—it does tie-in well with the overall character of the game. It's simply not perfect. It took me a while to come to terms with what felt off about the whole thing. I was having a showdown with a particularly troublesome Mage when it hit me (along with a Frostbolt, an Ice Lance, and a Fireball). The tense competitive atmosphere and the restrictive emotes combined with a facade of personality tricked the social wiring of my brain into overdrive.
Every time an emote pipes across the virtual table, my brain kicks off a wild goose chase, trying fruitlessly to parse some meaning out of insufficient information. Finally frustrated at finding none, it creates meaning, like your eyes creating visions in a pitch black room. The emotes can never be taken at face value because their face value is too shallow to be meaningful. I heard what I wanted to hear, or what I feared to hear.
This is not Blizzard's fault, really. It's pure human nature to read between the lines. And I can't imagine anything that could possibly be changed to fix it. It's just what happens when you design a clean, beautiful, orderly playground: someone's going to pee in the sandbox and spread their flu germs on the stairs.
So now, for your entertainment, I present a list of Hearthstone's emotes and all possible (mis)interpretations:
- "I appreciate your kind manners and timely play style."
- "It's okay that you silenced my 28/28 Lightspawn. I don't actually need it to win."
- "I really need to knock out these quests before dinner and your base incompetence and horrible deck-building skills have been a great help with that."
- "My, that was a clever combination of cards you just played. I hope to learn from your impressive insight and creativity. Good show!"
- "I just wanted to warn you of your impending doom so that you can really savor each one of these Fireballs I'm about to teabag you with."
- "Alas the game is at an end, but you proved to be a powerful foe and I now consider you among my strongest friends. Please come over for dinner so I can name you the godparent of my firstborn child."
- "Well played, in that you finally played something. And it was a single murloc. I'm glad you took the time to crunch the numbers on that one, Einstein."
- "... NOT!"
- "Hail, fellow collectible card game and/or World of Warcraft enthusiast! May our battle be swift and brutal that we may sooner feast together in the hall of the warrior."
- "'Sup, bra?"
- "Hellooooo? Wake your ass up over there! I've got this combo in my hand that I've been itching to play for, like, three rounds now. Just let your damned pizza rolls sit in the microwave and beep for a couple minutes."
- "My cat knocked a lamp off my nightstand, which sparked and caught the drapes on fire. Thankfully I keep a non-expired fire extinguisher in my bathroom cabinet for this exact situation so it didn't take me long to sort out. Sorry for any delay!"
- "I'm about to silence your 28/28 Lightspawn. (Oh and I'm not really sorry.)"
- "I can tell by the way you're playing that you got the worst possible draw for your deck. My condolences."
- "I can tell by the way you're playing that you got the worst possible draw for your deck. Suck it, butt cheese!"
- "I forgot to attack with my 2/1 Loot Hoarder before ending my turn. Now I fear you will be granted a victory based not on merit but on player error. The dissatisfied yearning left in your heart will long harry your search for peaceful sleep."
- "You forgot to attack with your 2/1 Loot Hoarder again, you moron. Why don't you go back to Kim Kardashian: Hollywood where you belong?"
- "I am a deranged sociopath with no common decency. I must lash out at you through every means afforded me!"
- "I am a deranged roleplayer with no social graces. I naively thought you would interpret my in-character threats as fun and immersive."
- "I was trying to click my hero power but I'm like four wine coolers in and this iPad is blurry like you wouldn't believe."
- "@$&# THESE CARDS AND @$&# THIS GAME AND @$&# YOU AND THE LEGENDARY HORSE YOU RODE IN ON! I HOPE THE THREE G'S YOU DROPPED ON CARDS MANAGED TO FILL THE GAPING HOLE IN YOUR PATHETIC LIFE."
- "Oh dear, I've lost!"
So there we have it. I hope this handy guide will help you navigate the rocky social waters of Hearthstone, and to all those I have faced across the card table and all those yet to come, I wish to offer a hearty Well Played!