The trouble with multimodal discourse

So the other night, my Warcraft guild was up very late trying the newest and most difficult raid in the game. We were all up quite a bit past our bedtimes and were, consequently, a little bit silly.

On Ventrilo (the voice chat program), one of our guildies, A, was having trouble with his microphone. He decided to tell us — with the broken microphone cracking and squawking in all of our ears — all of his woes in a minute-long diatribe, much to the protest of everyone listening.

This activity caused Z — one of the most innovative language users in the guild — to utter the now-infamous phrase “Thanks A, you made my laptop eat itself and upchuck a rabbit.”

To all of our latenight silliness addled-brains, this was the funniest thing we’d ever heard. And thus, it because the “Guild Message of the Day” in-game, just because we thought it was so hilarious. The creation of this message of the day prompted this sequence of chat discourse:

Of course, at the time that this happened, I had a browser window open and wasn’t looking at Warcraft, so I didn’t see this chat. S was in Ventrilo with us, and D responded to S’s in-game chat message (line 3) by saying over Ventrilo “Oh did you, S?”

So, I corrected D, saying “No, it was Z who said his laptop ate himself and upchucked a rabbit.”

D replied, “No, S is talking in guild chat! But it’s not clear if he ate the laptop or upchucked a rabbit.”

And then, S replied — again in guild chat — that he did both (see line 4).

All of this was so funny to Z that he laughed himself silly, over Ventrilo where we all could hear him laughing in gasps, and since he couldn’t stop laughing in order to talk, he typed in guild chat “BREATH” (line 5, intended to be “breathe”, a command to help himself stop laughing). Of course, he misspelled it, and D takes the opportunity in line 8 to correct his spelling using a *-repair. (With many *s, for emphasis perhaps!)

And then, in the final lines, Z reveals that D’s insistence on proper spelling (or proper English morphology, in this case), “killed it”, or made the whole thing not funny anymore.

This sequence of chat wouldn’t have made any sense to someone just looking at a chatlog. This is the reason that people should do deep ethnographies of these kinds of communities and really get involved, and pay attention to all of the modes of discourse and not just one. If I hadn’t been up raiding late at night, I would never have been privvy to this kind of exchange, and certainly not to understanding it.

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