Earlier this week, I got to tell the world what I thought of PlayStation VR. I liked it, and I’m excited at the prospect of more people trying virtual reality. But more than any headset so far, it’s made me confront a difficult fact: it makes one of my favorite ways to play video games almost impossible.
A few months ago, I moved in with my husband for the first time in our relationship. (It’s New York; housing is complicated.) Gaming is a job and a hobby for both of us — in fact, it’s how we met — and we devote long hours to completely different genres: he organizes local multiplayer tournaments and supports arcade games, I review virtual reality headsets and play old role-playing games over and over. But at some point in our relationship, we came together around the PlayStation 4.
I do mean, literally, around the console. Occasionally, we’ve tried cooperative or competitive couch gaming. But more often, we sit on the couch and play long single-player games in shifts. Sharing an apartment has made this much easier, so we recently started revisiting Metal Gear Solid V: one of us does a mission or some side ops, the other writes or reads comics or catches up on email. After a while, we switch. We’re not exactly playing games together, but we’re not ignoring each other, either. We look up every so often to critique a boss fight design, or compliment a nice takedown, or riff on some ridiculous Hideo Kojima plot point. We talk about politics or other games or what we want for dinner. It’s both a shared experience that doesn’t force us to drop everything else to interact with each other, and an individual activity that lets us still spend time together.
And I’ve never found a way to capture something like it in VR.
It’s not that VR can’t be social, or that you can’t spectate it. But it takes effort. Unless you actively recruit someone into a party game like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, you slip into a strange alone-together state. One of you can only see what the other is doing through a mirrored TV feed, which can be surprisingly difficult to follow, since it’s just a flat cutout of the player’s larger field of vision — often swinging wildly as they move their head. And the other can’t tell if anyone is there at all. The last time I tried to play a Rift game in the same room as my husband, it felt like being on the wrong side of a one-way mirror. “Wait, are you still there?” I kept asking, in case whatever comment I was about to make would go straight into the void. When I showed him the PSVR review unit and stepped back while he tried Thumper, he played a few levels and thought I had abandoned him.
I’m guessing that part of this is the unfamiliarity of a new platform, and maybe it will become a non-issue over time. Either VR will just be a completely separate part of my gaming diet — like it is now — or the strangeness will wear off, and it won’t feel any more isolating than wearing headphones. Maybe in the long run, we’ll both be wearing the “augmented virtual reality” glasses that Oculus’ Michael Abrash suggested in his keynote, and we can effortlessly tune in to what the other is doing. But for now, it’s one of the biggest things that keeps me from spending more time in virtual reality — and that often makes it feel more like work than play. It’s something I hadn’t foreseen when I started writing about VR four years ago, when I shared a miserable apartment with three total strangers and escape seemed like an unalloyed good.
For many people, being able to play games without intruding on an uninterested partner’s (or roommate’s) space probably is an unalloyed good. At the same time, our culture has never really had to deal with a medium as private as VR. The dark cinema might be our closest point of comparison, but even that involves a whole group of people watching the same screen — and it’s a more occasional treat than something actually installed in your living room. Even if you don’t play games, what happens when one of you wants to learn a cooking technique in a VR simulation, while the other wants to do some sketches in a VR paint program? Or any number of other things that couples do separately, while together? If you’ve gone through great effort to be closer to someone, and you have plenty of space for other solitary pursuits, sometimes the most valuable things are the ones that anchor you to reality.