Thursday, August 14, 2014

Cookies and Milquetoast

"I think I used to have a voice
Now I never make a sound
I just do what I've been told
I really don't want them to come around"

Nine Inch Nails - Every Day is Exactly the Same

Back when World of Warcraft first launched, I tried getting an old acquaintance to play it with me. He created an account and ran around for the first dozen or so levels but then abandoned it like so much internet flotsam. Though he knew enough about online games to critique its combat mechanics, graphics, music, what-have-you, his main complaint was more pertinent to WoW's presupposed role as a virtual world:
"Nobody talks in that game."

Though much too caught up myself at the time in dreams of world-spanning conflicts the likes of which online games had never seen, his insight echoed ever truer to me as the years dragged on. As virtual worlds deteriorated from sandboxes to theme-parks, with all the castration of player agency implied by such a transition, topics for discussion began to vanish into the nerf-vat. Back when I was playing EVE (before that too became bogged down in its own brand of self-inflicted irrelevance) the first thing one did when logging in was catch up on galactic news. What's the state of megacorporate politics? Does our starbase need another cargo run? Any pirates in our territory we might need to chase down? How are cruiser prices trending this week? From there, discussions diverged to various plans, schemes and plots.
In a theme-park game, however, nothing ever changes and there is nothing to discuss. Ask a guild whether anything's going on and they'll shrug and point you to the raid calendar.

" Every single day is exactly the same
There is no love here and there is no pain"

Without relevant in-game anchors, discussion rapidly devolved to a show of mutual social reinforcement. Generation Facebook, hopelessly addicted to the "like" button, has fabricated a new type of multiplayer guild out of polite smirks and head-nodding. In order to maintain the illusion of a community, some chatter must fill the chat screen, yet since all guilds are in practical terms identical (lacking any practical choices to make) they live in constant fear of losing members to each other through so-called "drama" so chat must be pruned of anything in the least objectionable. Don't even dream of complaining. All opinions are equal, therefore you need voice none. It's safer that way, rather than have someone whisper a guild officer that she finds your vociferous disdain for chainmail bikinis personally offensive and something really must be done about you.

"I really don't want them to come around"

Such guilds present a microcosm of the politically-correct constriction of public discourse. If you don't have anything bland to say, don't say anything at all. Pat each other on the back - but not too hard!

So what's left? Cookies, apparently. To manifest as each other's entourage, today's Twits have adopted their own little lexicon of cut-and-pasted expressions and deterministic "conversations."
Logging in or out is always a high point. It's about the only thing that actually happens, so each entrance and exit must fill an entire page of text, as half a dozen players trip over each other to greet or bid farewell to the person they haven't seen since yesterday with "wb" or "o7" or other nonsense. It's the place where everybody knows your name, even if it is interchangeable with that of any other level twelve healer.
"OMG I just got a new mouse/keyboard/backscratcher an its so awsum" is a perennial favorite. Everyone acts dutifully jealous.
"My cat is so crazy" is another classic. Cats have no opinions on politics or religion so they're deemed a safe topic.
Facetious exchanges of ideas persist even in games so oversimplified that no relevant questions remain. The answer may be blatantly obvious, but if we can reinforce our respective social roles as senior/junior members of the guild, we may as well fill a page with chatter about what the "best" item/skill/class is.
"OMG teh Sword of Ultimate Slaying just dropped" - cue excitement, really just an excuse to pat the lucky grinder on the back for pulling at that slot machine (killing that monster) for the 349th time. Again, since this reflexive head-patting prompts no judgments, it's a safe topic for discussion.
Some real-world chit-chat remains reliable in virtual worlds: weather and sports.

Yet always we come back to cookies, the mother of all social gum-flapping exercises. Ignore the type of cookie, ignore diabetes, ignore who has the cookies. The mere mention of the word is a cue for several players at once to type "omg cookies" or "gimme" or if feeling verbose, to state that, surprise-surprise, they too indeed enjoy doughy confections. Other topics exist, and each guild builds up its set of running gags which prompt mutual reinforcement as part of that in-group. Still, for over a decade and a half, through FPS and RPG, science fiction and fantasy, guild, clan, corporation or supergroup, the art of saying nothing online has retained a single, unconquerable mascot: the humble cookie.

Cookies are the very essence of non-topics, the precise middle of nowhere in that wasteland of faceless, opinionless, purposeless simulacrum of camaraderie.
 "Maybe with a glass of water on the side-"
"- for dippin'!"

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