Lockdown Makes for Sea of Friends

by Roy Biv

Once you’ve gotten to a certain point in open-world, survival style games, everyone is an enemy.

Wildly popular for their sandbox elements and seemingly unlimited freedom for player expression, these styles of games have seen a rise in player base numbers (as to be expected) amidst this year’s unique situation regarding the pandemic.  Everyone finds themselves with more time and more inclination to stay at home and play or watch on stream the kind of games which they may not have previously had enough time to sink their teeth into properly.  As with Christmas time and other yearly holidays like spring break, the increased free time in the real world leads to an influx of eager new players.  This influx, of course, results in the seasonal phenomena many of us affectionately refer to as the “Noob Harvest.”  New players unfamiliar with the game rush in to try out every feature the game has to offer, a spike in hostility and danger arises, and then the experienced players steamroll them.  

Hostility is not unique to special times, however.  My crew and I have a saying on Rare’s pirate adventure game Sea of Thieves that every shadow is an enemy.  This comes from the feature of other, distant player ships on the seas appearing as shadows on the horizon.  Because of the ability of players to choose for themselves whether their interactions will be peaceful or violent, the wise crew is the one that assumes every player ship is hostile and prepares defensive measures accordingly.

After playing fairly regularly over the years since its release and seeing a good deal more trigger-happy players than peaceful ones, I was expecting the quarantine months to turn the seas red with constant bloodshed.  After all, most players would be cooped up indoors for large amounts of time, frustrated by all sorts of things going on in life and perhaps enduring pain from the reality of death around them.  I was expecting this season to be the darkest and most rage-filled era since the game’s release as players sought release from the woes of a reality they couldn’t change.  I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Almost every weekend that I’ve played since the lockdowns started, my team and I have been approached by crews that pull-out instruments instead of swords.  We’ve been challenged to dance battles, invited to impromptu naval roleplay, asked to participate in fashion shows, and offered alliances to work together for mutual profit.  Instead of a spike in conflict levels as we’d been expecting, the seas have become more peaceful than they’ve ever been before.  I can count on one hand the number of times we’ve been jumped by blood-crazed murderers this past four months, and every single one of them was an old veteran crew of “legends” rather than the fresh players we’d been expecting.  Rather than falling upon each other like rabid dogs, the players of Sea of Thieves have banded together (at least in my experience) to do more wholesome things back to back than I’d ever seen since release.

This surprise is not isolated to Sea of Thieves alone.  Other open-world games we’ve been playing such as Conan Exiles, Atlas, and Ark have experienced the same surprising drop in hostility even on player versus player servers. Instead the wars have been replaced with dodo-bird races, jousting tournaments, and ad-hoc community events like competitive sailing and platform jumping puzzle-courses.  In the season of conflict and chaos in the real world, the game worlds have been astonishingly wholesome!

Why is this?  What does it say about players as a whole that, instead of conflict escalating, conflict all but disappeared when universal pressure arose from the outside world at large?  As with the denizens of New York after 9/11, were people banded together by mutual shock to be kinder in their actions to others?  Or is it simply that those who have been playing did so with a desire for a release of their pent-up desire for positive socializing, rather than venting frustration?  

At their heart, games like these are driven by player freedom.  Unlike scripted games or games with rigid multiplayer rules, sandbox games allow the player to choose how they want to act towards other players without much consequence to either a “naughty” or “nice” approach.  Gaming journalism has generally held the idea that much of the more distasteful conflict stems from players wanting to anonymously let off steam as a result from real life issues, but there is not much discussion on potential sources of anonymous kindness.  There is something to be said for real world chaos breeding game world wholesomeness, and it stands in direct contrast to the usual status quo.  It could be that players seek an outlet for positivity amidst perils outside the game.  It is easy to want the thrill of a sense of danger as a break from the monotony of routine life, but when daily life holds more danger than one is used to, it makes sense that the source of adrenaline thrill be turned into a source of humorous thrill.  After all, video game conflict is generally the chaos we can control, whereas quarantine and the events preceding and following it are a chaos we cannot.  

I wholeheartedly recommend trying out some of these games this season—if not for experiencing the unique and heartwarming phenomena, then as a way to pass the extra downtime everyone suddenly finds themselves with on hand. Sea of Thieves in particular is a hilarious and memorable game for almost all ages in which no one night’s experience will ever be the same.  And if you’re feeling lonely, pick up one of their newly released virtual pets which your character can snuggle and pet just as if it were a real-life animal.  The game is at heart a cooperative game for friends, so consider using it as a way to stay in touch with friends not otherwise visitable as the crew sets sail for adventure on the high seas.

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