I like some isolation in virtual reality

I’m not really a gamer. When I was a wee tot I got my first gaming console. I played it into the ground. Every couple of years I’d get the next gen console and do the same. Somewhere along the line I got my first home computer and I gamed on it until it was obsolete. Then rather abruptly, in my late teen years, I was done with video games. I didn’t know it at the time, though. It wasn’t a conscious choice. It’s taken years of hindsight to see the pattern and to stop identifying myself as a gamer. The entirety of my early video gaming life was done before the internet was a thing. When I needed an opponent it was a friend sitting next to me or it was the lying, cheating computer opponent. It wasn’t until my first MMO that I got used to playing with people I’ve never met. I remember joining a guild and they all spoke with microphones while I had to enter text through my keyboard. I didn’t last long with them. I wasn’t social enough to take it to the level of voice communication. I wasn’t gamer enough to take it to the level of voice communication.

Me and my Commodore 64 in 1985

When I first got my Gear VR I checked out the social apps. I was the weird guy who put time into customizing my avatar but who never spoke. A part of it is that my wife would be in the other room and I think she’d think I was being too big of a geek, but mostly it’s my own insecurity or whatever it is (even blaming my wife is a sign of my dodging some personal issue). I’m just not social enough for most modern games. So here I am looking at a couple of recent PSVR games and feeling my feet get cold about their social aspects. I very specifically bought a PS4 Pro for the PSVR. I play a few non-VR games on it but nothing that requires me to communicate with other people. The VR games I have are all solitary or they’re played with other people in the same room, just like my early console experiences. There’s an exception to that last statement: I bought Farpoint and I LOVE Farpoint, but there are a few places where it would be nice to have another player with me. I know that it has a co-operative mode but I haven’t explored it. I won’t explore it. I’ll keep on pushing ahead under my own power, even if it means repeating things an embarrassing number of times or quitting the game. That’s just how I operate even if I don’t like it.

This week the game Star Trek: Bridge Crew released. It’s a game for one to four players, where each person takes a role on the bridge of the Enterprise as it works through missions that require co-operation with all other players. The hype leading up the release was huge. Ever since it was first announced people have been touting it as the killer app that VR needs. I can see why, too. It’s got a big, brand name setting. It’s social in a way that other VR games haven’t been social yet. When players move their heads and hands all other players will see that movement. It’s also cross-platform, allowing PSVR, Rift, and Vive players to all participate together. It’s a ground-breaking title. Now that it’s here it’s getting some really big reviews. So far it’s all 8s and 9s out of 10 and 4.5s out of 5. When I first heard about this game I was eager to get it, buying into the hype pretty completely. Now that it’s here and I’ve read the reviews I don’t think I’ll get it. The reviews are great, like I said, but they all sound the same trumpet: you need three or four players to really enjoy it and the single player experience is lacking. My takeaway is that I need to be social to enjoy the game.

Photo courtesy of Ubisoft

My inner dialogue about Star Trek: Bridge Crew is ongoing. I don’t currently think I’ll buy the game, but my early inclinations to buy it haven’t been vanquished. Digging deeper into my thoughts I have identified three reasons why I wouldn’t enjoy the game.

The first reason is that I don’t want to be the weak link. I haven’t played many social games, but when I do I have concern that I’ll fail the group. This exact concern is what got me to top out on MMOs before I hit the level caps; I didn’t believe I could run with the biggest dogs. There are gamers and then there are Gamers, with the former being the casual set and the latter being the hardcore. I don’t think it’s fair to the hardcore for them to be paired with a lightweight like me.

The second reason is classic social anxiety. I don’t know who I’ll meet. Maybe they’re totally rad and we become lifelong gaming buddies or maybe they’re malicious deviants who want to purposely diminish my experience or, more likely, something in between. Communicating through a keyboard in MMOs worked to keep the people I met as something less than people. Without voices and without any clear mannerisms I didn’t always concern myself with who I was meeting. I live in a big city and there’s a certain level of anonymity and not paying attention to others that exists here. I take that same attitude into games. In Star Trek: Bridge Crew, though, I would purposely be spending time with two or three other random people with whom I need to cooperate. I imagine it’s akin to being in an escape room with people I’ve never met. I know that I can make myself do this, but I’m introverted enough that I probably won’t.

Finally, my time spent in virtual reality isn’t dictated by forces that I control. I have a wife and when I’m not at my 9-to-5 I spend my time with her. Sometimes she has to work on weekends or evenings and when she does that’s when I don my goggles and play VR. I could conceivably buy Star Trek: Bridge Crew right now and not have a shot to play it for months. Even though there are a lot of people playing PSVR games those crowds aren’t large enough to keep titles populated in the long run (see Rigs and Werewolves Within). It’s conceivable that I buy the game now, wait months to play it, and then there’s no one with whom to play. If I decide to buy the game then I’ll wait until I know I’ll have a weekend to play it and inquire about just how robust the player base is at that time.

Photo courtesy of vTime

If someone were to have asked me before I tried VR what I thought I would use it for I would have included multi-player experiences. I really enjoy MMOs. I’m looking forward to the VR version of Second Life, called Sansar. The book Ready Player One has me sold on a massive virtual world. All of these things tell me that I want some social in my VR, yet here I am declining to take the step into social VR. I really enjoy the single player escape rooms, haunted house crawls, shoot ’em ups, and flying things. I enjoy exploring by myself at my own pace. One of the few non-VR games that I really enjoy is No Man’s Sky because it completely checks the boxes of being by myself and doing things at my own pace. I’m trying to think inwardly as I write this; maybe my problem is more with the intimate setting of being around a few people and I’d do better in a world with a higher population. That might be it. All I know is VR is beginning to bump against the outer wall of my comfort zone with its social apps. That’s okay because there will likely be plenty of content for the various tiers of solitary play, group play, and massive world play. I just didn’t expect to encounter social anxiety in VR so soon, and not with a title as ballyhooed as Star Trek: Bridge Crew. One of my laments about VR is that it’s isolating. I guess I should shut up about that the next time that I’m under the goggles.