For me, summer used to be time to spend outdoors. Big video games didn’t debut when kids like me were growing up and going outside to play. Our parents encouraged us to go outside. But now we can take our games with us anywhere, and I like nothing more than taking them on the big family vacation.
I took the Oculus Go virtual reality headset, the Nintendo Switch portable game console, and my aging iPhone 6 on vacation with my extended family in San Luis Obispo. It wasn’t much of a gaming arsenal, but my nephew also had his gaming laptop. We had everyone from 5-year-olds to matriarchs in their 80s there, and most of them weren’t gamers.
I talked about it this week on a Crowdcast webinar panel with VR writer Charlie Fink. I think my family vacation showed the real power of VR to entertain everybody, young and old, gamers and non-gamers.
My niece heard about my troubles playing Cuphead (a really hard game), and she told me she became obsessed with the game. She told me she finished the game after dying a few thousand times. That was better than I, and probably most people, could do. But that was a rare experience for her. Only a few of us in the group were gaming geeks.
During one of our dinners, I broke out the Oculus Go. Immediately, my nieces and nephews got in line to try out the device, which Facebook’s Oculus VR launched earlier this year for $200. Unlike the earlier tethered VR headsets, the Oculus Go doesn’t require a lot of setup time. You don’t have to hook it to a computer. It has no wires that inhibit your movement. It has a single hand controller that is easy to use, like a remote control, with just four buttons and a single AA battery. You charge the Go up and it’s ready to use.
When I put the Oculus Go on my relatives across three generations, I could see their faces light up. Even though the Oculus Go isn’t extremely powerful, the experience is immersive. You can turn your head in any direction and see the 3D world. If you haven’t tried VR much, you can get lost in it. It was heartwarming to see almost all of them try the experience. I just worried the battery would give out.
I didn’t have that much to show them. One of the apps was a fairly static VR tour of Anne Frank’s home in Amsterdam, with its secret annex where the young girl’s family hid from the Nazis during World War II. It showed the cramped space of the hideout, and you could feel its suffocating confinement. It wasn’t exactly the most cheerful thing to show off the Oculus Go.
More popular was the Ocean Rift experience that showed life under the sea with beautiful blue and purple hues, along with undersea creatures like blue whales, sharks, and ancient sea monsters. Our youngest family member, a five-year-old, enjoyed that experience. And so did my 84-year-old mother, who had only tried VR once before when I showed her a Samsung Gear VR headset. My 86-year-old mother-in-law stayed in that experience for a long time. And so did all of the aunts, uncles, and kids.
My Cuphead niece gave Coaster Combat and Ultrawings a whirl. In Coaster Combat, you ride on a rollercoaster and try to shoot things that you pass by, and in Ultrawings, you try to fly an airplane and pop balloons and snap photos. I also showed off the Oculus Venues social app where you watch sporting events with other friends or strangers in a VR stadium.
We had quite a line for the Oculus Go, which was in use for a solid two hours, so I also broke out the Nintendo Switch. The family played a few rounds of Mario Kart 8 on the Switch, propping up the screen and breaking off the controllers in two-player matches. All of this took place in a hotel dining hall where we didn’t have access to traditional game consoles. It was the best gaming we could do at that moment, and it was certainly good enough. The non-gamers in our family didn’t care. They just enjoyed themselves.
Later on, my daughter and my nephew went for a walk, and we all played Pokémon Go on our iPhones. My kid had just gotten an iPhone 8, and she finally had space to store apps. So she got back into Pokémon Go, which she had played religiously when it first came out. I’ve played it on and off, and I returned to it to try out the raid function. The three of us went to the Poké Gym across the street and took part in the raid. It was fun, except we didn’t get the expected Legendary Pokémon as a prize.
Late at night, my 11-year-old nephew broke out his fancy $800 gaming laptop. He put on headphones, plugged in the mouse, and fired up Fortnite. My older nephew and I watched as he chatted with other players via Discord and went into a match with a hundred strangers. He used his hot keys to build wooden barriers and gained height advantages on other players.
He had fast reflexes, and he plugged some of the slower players. He pulled off a beautiful sniper shot at a target in the distance, but someone else took him out and he placed third in the round. He had clearly already put a lot of hours into Fortnite, the free-to-play battle royale game that has generated a billion dollars in revenue and has soared into the cultural mainstream. Everybody had heard about it, and World Cup players did the Fortnite dance after they scored goals.
When I was on my own, I was obsessively playing Westworld, the mobile game from Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment and Behaviour Interactive. Based on the hit HBO TV show, Westworld is just a great way to spend my time tapping on my aging iPhone 6 and waiting for things to happen so that I can tap on the screen again. I had no idea why I was spending so much time with the game, and why I still do, but it has been one of the many ways I’ve been using my time — not killing it or wasting it — during my memorable summer of 2018.
I know that in the future, I will think back on the moments of our family vacation, and so many of them will be about the time we spent playing games and having fun, gamers and non-gamers alike. As it should be.