Remove from your mind the idea of Virtual Reality being the harbinger of a great isolation. VR is poised to become the next big step in social media and communication technology. Consumer devices have been on the market for less than five months, and in that time a clear distinction is being made between games that are one-off experiences, and those that are fresh and compelling enough to garner daily use. The latter tends to be filled with social elements. Case in point: Rec Room
Rec Room is, on a daily basis, one of the most played VR games on Steam. It is a virtual chat room in which players interact using speech and body language. What is hard to get across with words is the actual experience of meeting someone in virtual space. Their head being tracked means you get a sense for how tall they are. The tracking is precise enough that a person can point, shrug, facepalm, or dance, and it all comes through naturally. This is what online multiplayer games have always been missing – emotes functioning as a sad replacement. During a round of Rec Room’s paintball game, you will look into the eyes of your enemy, dodging their paint pellets with the tilt of your head while sending back retaliating fire. To teabag them will tire your knees.
Paintball is just one of the games you can play in Rec Room. As of this writing the list includes paintball, shield soccer, 3D charades, disc golf, paddleball, and dodgeball. More activities are supposedly coming down the road. Meanwhile, there is always the social public space dubbed the locker room. Players also each have their own dorm rooms where they can invite friends for a private chat. How do you invite someone to join your party? You give them a fist bump.
This is not a review of Rec Room, however. Even describing it as ‘fun’ or ‘not fun’ misses the point. Sure, it is a free-to-play early access game on steam, but it’s also a piece of history-in-the-making. It (along with Altspace) constitutes the first big wave of VR social media. This is taking the most popular elements of the internet and applying them to technology that sheds the abstractions of keyboard and mouse computer interfacing. This means that you don’t like something with a click, you do so with a handshake. I can’t stress enough how important it is to stop thinking of VR as a thing for video games, and instead think of it as a tool for communication, one that is as important as books, phones, radios, televisions, and computers.
But, being the most financially successful consumer-facing market, video games are very important to the first steps of VR. Like the computer in the 90s, this new technology will be cared for in its infancy by video games and pornography. Talk of the latter is for another time.
I’ve lost hours dropping into a game of charades with two strangers, the three of us taking turns drawing clues with the 3D paint-gun. It seems simple, but so much was happening. Things that seem so inconsequential when listed on a website, but things that feel groundbreaking to live. We patted each other on the back, we cupped our mouths and boo’d particularly bad drawings, and during a moment of absent mindedness I scratched by balls and got called on it.
What made the time fly by was the sense of being in a place with these people who felt like longtime friends, but who I will only remember as floating heads and hands. What makes the game fun are the people and interactions.
Similarly, what makes the game not fun is the people. That same game of charades could very well (and has) ended up being a complete disaster, filled with annoying 10 year olds screaming and mouth-breathing thirty year olds stealing the paint-gun to drawn penises.
And that is the curve ball VR threw. While fear mongers write articles predicting the end of an appreciation for outside, developers are creating a new way to video-chat your nephew living across the country, methods for a young kid to sit in class even though he’s home with a cold, and vehicles to allow anyone to get seats on the sidelines of the Super Bowl. VR is more than just the holodeck from Star Trek, it’s the teleporter too.