Voice Skins and Individual Identity

Games have the opportunity to provide truly unique tools to help each player understand their own identity.

Voice changing has been around for a long time, but always with telltale indications of distortion, which prevent both the speaker and the listener from experiencing the transformed voice as the speaker’s ‘true’ voice.

Modulate’s VoiceWear service changes this by introducing truly authentic voice skins, which allow a speaker to maintain nuanced control over emotion and prosody while effectively trying on a new set of vocal cords. The result, which can be heard here, is a new voice that avoids any artifacts or ‘giveaways,’ allowing the speaker to project a new identity.

There are a number of fun applications for this technology — immersing yourself into a specific character, creating a unique performance using a popular voice, or simply injecting some chaos and uniqueness into your social interactions. But there are also some crucial ways that Modulate believes voice skins could impact player identities on a deeper level.

For instance, consider trans gamers — many of whom have reached out to us to share heartbreaking stories and to emphasize how magical and freeing it would be to no longer be forced to use a biological voice that doesn’t feel like theirs, but to instead be able to use a voice which matches their own identity. Or consider issues of bias, where many players feel uncomfortable using voice chat due to the fact that their voice would reveal their demographics and potentially make them a target. For instance, in one survey Modulate conducted among college-age competitive and semi-competitive players, nearly 60% of women surveyed suggested that they’d use voice skins to present as male, citing some variation on the desire to avoid harassment and simply play the game.

Now, to be clear, voice skins don’t solve the underlying problem — that people are out there looking to harass women online — and the last thing we want to do is to tell women and minorities that they need to hide or that it would be “better” for them to present as white men. But until we can design our online communities in a way that completely avoids this kind of harassment (a problem Modulate is also deeply invested in solving), we believe that offering players an additional option that makes many of them feel more comfortable is certainly better than nothing.

But, powerful as these applications of voice skins are, I’m so far just sharing stories and anecdotes. Do we have anything more concrete and definitive to help us understand how a system like VoiceWear could impact online communities?

There are certainly some important studies out there from which we can derive insight. To start, we have Young People and Gender Identity: subverting the ‘body’ in massively multi-player online role-playing games, a paper by Nic Crowe and Mike Watts. Crowe and Watts (C&W) discuss the importance of online games — and specifically, the freedom players have to choose their body type and gender in MMORPGs — serves a vital role in helping players explore their own identity. They observe that previous researchers had suggested that gender choice in MMORPGS, since it had no gameplay impact, must have been purely aesthetic (with players choosing merely the gender they preferred to look at rather than making identity-based decisions.) However, C&W disagrees with this assertion. They studied thousands of games and interactions on RuneScape (among the top MMORPGs of the time) and found that, while there are a small number of players who lean towards this aesthetic thinking, the vast majority of players are focused on role-playing. These players specifically mention the freedom and empowerment they are granted by the ability to customize their avatar.

This suggests that voice skins could have the same impact of largely freeing players to try out different identities and ways of interacting in a relatively safe way, helping them both to engage in the experience more deeply as well as to develop a richer understanding of their own identities. But, you might ask, how do we know that one’s voice has the same impact on our self-perception as our visual avatar does?

One study on this topic asked how the pitch of one’s voice impacts one’s sense of power in a relationship, especially for men. They found that deeper male voices are considered to be more powerful by listeners — but perhaps more intriguingly, that men who consider themselves to be less powerful than their conversation partner will artificially and near-subconsciously increase the pitch of their voice (and visa versa when they believe themselves to be more powerful.) While far from conclusive, this suggests that giving users access to wildly different voices in an online game may temporarily impact their behavior — and one could certainly imagine this having longer-term effects, such as helping those with low self esteem feel more comfortable speaking their mind by practicing with a deeper voice online.

A study from 2017, Managing Online Toxic Disinhibition: The Impact of Identity and Social Presence, offers valuable insight into the dynamics of social interaction, which lead players to feel more or less comfortable with toxic or offensive behaviors they’d typically avoid. But for our purposes, the key insight is somewhat narrower — which communication methods were found to be most central to a player’s sense of identity? What they found was that the use of synchronous interaction features — particularly voice chat — had a correlation of 0.828 (p<0.01) with a player’s perceived sense of social presence (in other words, the degree to which they feel their identity is being recognized and engaged with by other players.)

Still not convinced? Another study finds that 80% of female players felt empowered by the opportunity to interact with others in games differently from how they would in the real world, even as 75% of those same players reported experiencing active harassment while playing.

So let’s put this all together. What are the key takeaways?

  • Identity exploration is an important role fulfilled by online games.
  • While a few players use identity customization for other reasons, the vast majority of players rely on it as a tool for understanding and expressing themselves more authentically.
  • Voice chat, and our voices themselves, are crucial elements of our identity and self-expression.

None of this is slam-dunk evidence, and Modulate intends to continue observing as communities evolve while listening carefully to players and studios as voice skins become more widely adopted, to ensure that the positive elements of identity customization do indeed outweigh the risks of players misusing VoiceWear for fraud, trolling, or appropriation. So far, though, we certainly view the data as optimistic — and combined with the passionate stories we continue to hear from players every day, we think it points to a truly exciting trajectory for making online social interactions richer, more inclusive, and more immersive than ever before.

CEO and cofounder at Modulate.ai, building crazy cool machine learning tools to make online voice chat more immersive and inclusive.