I think people expect to feel like a lonely robot when they’re strapped into a VR headset. I get it. It’s hard to believe that a gigantic cyborg outfit that replaces the world around you with a 4k screen could be a social experience. I mean heck , I can’t even scroll through my first Betterhelp ad on Instagram without losing the thread of my roommate’s incredibly personal story about their favorite childhood stuffed animal. And that’s just me trying to deal with 12 square inches of immersion let alone 360 degrees! What kind of mad person would pull their child out of their room and away from their fifteenth round of Fortnite to go play another video game? At a BAR of all places??
A genius, that’s who.
As my boss Aaron (who runs the website you’re reading this here blog post on) can attest, I’m a practiced skeptic with everything he proposes. Back in 2019, when I started working at Redline VR, I was thrilled to get the opportunity to curate video games for a living. ButBuut I wasn’t so sure a virtual reality arcade would have such a universal appeal.
Here’s where I’m coming from: From the glory days of Lego Star wars to a potentially unhealthy three-year-long relationship with Battle Royale games, I’ve been trying to sway my family and friends to the dark side of casual gaming my entire life. Even with the best employees (and I do mean the BEST employees 😉), I felt like the barriers of gaming literacy paired with the full-vision coverage of a VR headset would be insurmountable. It’s like going to a bowling alley where only one person bowls at a time while simultaneously wearing a blindfold and wildly hallucinating while everyone else sits and drinks beer.
Wait, that sounds awesome.
Because it is! Aaron’s converted me. Before Redline I had a little bit of virtual reality experience cobbled together from strip mall Best Buys and a handheld VR device that painfully magnified the resolution on my phone so that everything turned into a grainy mess. I was already blown away by my experiences with that tech, so stepping into that 2.3-million-pixel-per eye 360-degree space at Redline was mind-blowing. I first realized the true power of the headsets while watching someone play a game where you take an elevator to the top of a skyscraper and walk out onto a plank. When you’re sitting sipping on sodas and spectating what the player is seeing, it’s hard to understand why someone would freak out so astronomically at simulated heights. I laughed and laughed at my new coworkers being terrified of this ridiculous game until I put the headset on myself and my stomach dropped. When you’re in the ridiculously high-res headsets we have at Redline, your body forgets that you’re just playing a game, and all of a sudden it feels like you’re actually standing at the top of a skyscraper, teetering off the edge. One of the parts of my job that warms my heart the most is the connection forged within families as the kids pressure their parents to plummet off that plank. And as for the games we’ve got, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
For those of you who aren’t looking to simulate the terror of standing 500 feet in the air, VR provides. There’s something for everyone, and we’ll help you find it. We get a lot of first-timers who opt out of the skyscraper experience and instead spend their whole time giggling while they pet whales or paint in three dimensions.
Some of the most fun I’ve ever had was when I came back to Redline on a day off to watch my friend Cami (an comedy legend by my personal assessment), play through thirteen levels of Job Simulator, a benign and silly game developed as part of the Robert Redford-founded Sundance Film Festival Institute. The magic of Job Simulator is in the pairing of cheeky workplace comedy writing with a cast of characters made up entirely of robots in a world in which everything you could even think of interacting with is interactive.
We kept Cami in that headset all night. I much preferred sipping down cherry cocktails and cackling while she begrudgingly did the will of her virtual robot bosses. I was blown away by how connected we were to everything our friend was doing, despite her being immersed in a completely different world from us. That level of social play is far from a unique experience at Redline. Our bread and butter are Chicagoans sipping cocktails and razzing their friends as they try and beat each other’s high scores in a game where you shoot robot aliens with lasers or fly around a city with a rocket strapped to their hand.
To this point, I always recommend that you start out by splitting a headset with some friends if it’s your first time. The natural inclination is to want to rent out an entire headset for each person in your party so that you can play multiplayer games. Which is great if that’s what you’re looking for! Nothing bonds you with your significant other quite like fighting off wave after wave of zombies.
But I’d challenge you to come in with your closest friends and try not to get even closer over an hour of drinks, snacks, and making a fool of yourself as you trade-off taking turns immersed in VR.
The other piece of my skepticism towards the broad accessibility of VR is the stumbling block of what I earlier referred to as “video game literacy.” The concept is essentially this: If you’ve been playing video games your whole life, you can pretty much hop into any game and learn it in a pinch just by using the touchstones and assumptions burnt into your subconscious from the thousands of hours you’ve dedicated to learning how to “read” a game. Back in the days that you bought games physically, this is the skill set that led to hundreds of thousands of manuals being thrown out of their respective jewel cases every year.
Gaming literacy is the ability to say, “Oh hey! The game gave me a purple polka-dotted key! That means there must be a purple polka-dotted door somewhere nearby that I need to unlock. OR MAYBE purple polka-dot chest with an equipment upgrade that I can use to access a hidden location that will get me to the miniboss that will teach me a skill to defeat the act I main boss!” These are the often necessary and terribly convoluted rapid thought processes that stop a lot of people from getting into video games later in life. Add in the muscle memory needed for most controllers and video games move farther and farther from a broad base of accessibility.
People often ask me if Redline VR is a good place to bring older bring the older people in their lives or not. A fair concern. I’ve seen grandparents try video games, and it’s often not a fun experience for them (that’s not to say that all grandparents aren’t technologically talented, my grandmother happens to be a whiz with hosting a Zoom room). Frankly, I’ve seen people my age who also may as well have spent three-quarters of a century avoiding video games with the aptitude they have with a controller. The double-joystick situation isn’t pretty if you aren’t used to it.
So here comes VR. On its face a significantly more complex setup. Sensors, headsets, link-boxes, Steam clients, one controller for each hand, 360-degrees of sensory input, ohhh man this is going to be a challenge-- wait, did that grandmother just absolutely school every single one of her grandchildren on Beatsaber????
The trick to bridging the literacy gap with Virtual Reality is that it’s just you, your eyes, and your body! The controllers are surprisingly intuitive. They work just like your hands (which any good VR experience curator will tell you) and they move when you move. When you turn your head in real life, you turn your head in-game. You aren’t having to translate a 2-dimensional world onto a controller or a keyboard when there’s a 3-dimensional whale swimming right past you and all you have to do is reach out and touch it. You get to sit back and watch an imaginary world unfold in front of you while outside in actual reality the tiny humans your own tiny humans built run around you and celebrate how good you are at touching those whales. It’s miraculous.
Every day I interact with customers who wander in off the street and say, “I’ve never played games before, is this going to be fun for me?” I get to say, “Yes. Yes it absolutely will be,” and not have even a shred of doubt. Every day I walk families to their stations, show them how to use this ridiculously cool tech, get them into a game that I know they specifically will enjoy based on their likes and interests, then step back and watch them socialize and bond in ways that surprise them (and me!) every time.
Virtual reality isn’t what we’re used to in video games. It’s nothing like dissociating in your nerdy friend’s basement while they speedrun Fallout64 and talk about how disappointing of a release that game was. It’s nothing like practicing all day every day just to be absolutely destroyed and insulted by 12-year-olds in Fortnite. And it’s certainly a long way off from the glory days of Lego Star Wars. Virtual reality is a space where you get together with your friends and family and have adventures you never could have dreamed of. Together.
I can’t express how excited I am to share VR with the world. It brings people together in ways that send me to sleep smiling every night. I hope you’ll come by and let me prove it.