How to Discuss ‘Social’ and ‘Multiplayer’ VR
Offline, socializing is understood as voluntary communication between people who share a non-binding or absent social bond. This interaction is treated either as a candidacy for vacant roles within your social network, like acquaintances/friends/business partners, or a reminder of your existence within the wider community. And also, as your therapist would likely say, it’s good for you. In the early days of online communication, socialization became inter-generationally muddled. But we’ll simply accept that socialization may also include computer-mediated communication centered on a shared interest, whether it’s e-sports or social justice.
In VR, users can now interact with one another, be they friends or strangers, in a shared digital environment located on the platform’s server. The VR experience might be centered on a single game (QuiVR, Echo Arena) or it could be strictly conversational (VTime). Given these approaches to the design of multi-user social experiences, it’s tempting to place them on a spectrum based on how much visitors to the app are likely to talk. For example, the center would be inhabited by AltspaceVR, which leans toward the conversational, and Rec Room, which leans towards gameplay. But we forget there are experiences that generally focus on watching films/streams in a group (Bigscreen Beta, Bean VR) while other apps host somewhat major events (again, AltspaceVR) and the amount of conversation depends entirely on how comfortable users are talking over that film or event.
So, it’s probably helpful to keep two things in mind, the relative value users place on a social experience and the symbiotic relationship between users and their environment:
Some gamers, and people at large, are not verbally adept and will find conversation for its own sake draining. VR experiences placing users in an environment that provides zero-to-minimal interactivity that has a limited choice of avatar type will, for some, feel like being stuck in an elevator with an especially uninteresting stranger. Those people would prefer games. Even with close friends, many people plan their nights around tabletop games, which act as an escape hatch when the conversation starts to wear thin. When you’re among strangers, it’s so much the better since they’re a reliable ice breaker, further allowing you to learn about the other player observationally so you might later start talking from a sincere wish to know more about them. The same can be said of film and video, which will have viewers sharing a perspective on what they’d seen, giving a glimpse of the inner-person behind the avatar. However, if game-centered social VR app developers don’t give an appropriate venue for casual conversation, willing and eager speakers may supplement their social VR experience with another app and, for a while, take their gaming companions with them.
How an environment is developed also gives clues as to what you might do in a shared space and picking up on those clues will lead to tendencies within a VR app’s user base. For example, including a high number of manipulable knickknacks will likely promote a jovial atmosphere full of lighthearted interaction, but the trade off could be juvenile (i.e. underage / immature / man-child) appeal, which comes with its own pitfalls. A virtual environment with relatively fewer points of interaction could attract more conversant visitors, but those more attracted to whimsy and frolic might end up bored by the experience. Of course, there are platforms in which users are the primary content creators (High Fidelity, Sansar, Anyland), which leaves UX decisions mostly in the hands of local property owners.
Back to the original question of Social vs. Multiplayer, I would argue that both competitive and cooperative gameplay are communicative acts. And when able to speak with another player, the experience may safely be considered social. Being multiplayer infers the existence of a game which, even if 90% of the experience, will be only part of it. Multiplayer also excludes the shared consumption or performance of live events and media content, making it descriptively insufficient. So, I propose that Multiplayer VR is Social VR and a good descriptor for elements of gameplay. But Social VR is a broader term encompassing Multiplayer experiences and is the best descriptor for user interaction, exploration of environments, self-expression, and media consumption within the virtual plane.