If there's one thing that Sony's new Home experience proves, it's that if you give people an opportunity to interact with each other in an almost totally anonymous virtual world, they will do one of two things:
A) Act like creeps
B) Dance like they've never danced before
OK. Perhaps some of them will do what they were meant to do – which is hold polite conversations with one another and invite each other to play video games and otherwise share their mutual love of all things PlayStation.
But believe you me … if you walk into Home wearing a female avatar (because, you know, you actually happen to be a female in real life), you better be prepared to be approached by packs of dude avatars who will, literally, surround you and say things like:
"u r hot"
"you look hot"
"are you a guy or a gay?"
"you are hot!"
"hope you don't mind being the meat in dis sandwich"
That last comment they'll say while performing what can only be construed as some kind of digital mating dance. The running man. The robot. The body pop. Yes, they will perform any and all of these dance moves in very close proximity to your avatar and with great persistence.
Last Thursday, Sony launched the open beta for Home – a 3-D virtual world that anyone who owns a PlayStation 3 can visit for free. It is at once a grand, fascinating experiment in virtual community and social gaming … as well as a theater of the absurd.
It is a place where people get together and connect over the games they love … and it's also a testosterone-fueled meat market where the men massively outnumber the women. It is absorbing, cool and frequently hilarious. But it also feels, at times, like a world where the madhouse inmates have been set free to run amok.
“The interest in PlayStation Home has been off the charts,” Jack Buser, Sony’s director of Home, told me earlier this week, though he declined to reveal any specific numbers.
A visit to Home during this, its first week open to the public, certainly reveals a place bustling with visitors – even into the wee hours of the morning.
What Buser will say is that, "Home was born out of this need for a social network for gamers. The idea was that we could provide this extremely realistic, immersive environment that would allow people to get to know one another. When you meet someone in Home, and you hang out with them … you really start to feel like you know this person. And that was our hope – to enable people to form deep relationships."
To that end, when you start Home for the first time you'll be introduced to an easy-to-use tool that allows you to build a virtual version of yourself to represent you in this virtual world. You’ll also be given a private apartment (with a water view no less) to decorate as you choose.
But the meat of Home is in the public spaces where you and dozens of other players can run around, chat with each other, and explore.
There's a bowling alley where you can knock down pins or shoot pool with your fellow gamer. There’s a theater where you can check out trailers for movies and games.
Scoot over to the mall and you can buy a new shirt or new pair of shoes for your avatar for a mere 49 cents. You can also purchase a swank summer home for $4.99. Sony is counting on these micro purchases to add up to mega business … but just in case buying stuff isn’t your bag, the mall features an alcove where you can play chess against other Home visitors.
Meanwhile, there are several locations created around themes from specific games. For example, there's Sully's Bar – an atmospheric watering hole from the game "Uncharted: Drake's Fortune” that doesn't have a drop of virtual booze but does have some locked doors that can be opened if you sleuth your way through the clues scattered ‘round the place (or, easier yet, if you do a Google search for the unlock codes). The locked doors lead to other "Uncharted" themed rooms – all of this designed to provide some entertainment … and to pique your interest in purchasing and playing the game.
But perhaps the most popular socializing space is the central plaza, an outdoor environment complete with a reflecting pool and performance stage. It is here that you'll find your fellow Home visitors discussing important topics like the tenuous state of Russia/Georgia relations or the pros and cons of a $14 billion auto industry bailout.
Oh, who am I kidding. Mostly you'll find people dancing … and hitting on each other … or doing both at the same time.
Do the locomotion
Buser says they initially gave the avatars the ability to perform a few dance moves, thinking it would be sort of like giving them emoticons. “We really did not expect for it to become such a popular aspect of the Home experience.”
Popular is an understatement. Stroll through Home and you’ll find people spontaneously getting their groove on in just about every possible location – the central plaza, the bowling alley, the theater. You’ll find them dancing the salsa around the chess players in the mall. You’ll find them doing the cabbage patch behind a rusted out train in the “Far Cry 2” themed space.
During a late-night visit to the central plaza, I came upon some 20 people lined up around the reflecting pool performing the running man dance and desperately trying to convince passers-by to join them. Check out YouTube and you’ll see that trying to form the longest conga line possible has become one of the more popular pastimes in Home.
The meat in the man sandwich
Besides the dancing, the other thing a visitor to Home can’t help but notice is the ratio of men to women … and the caveman-like behavior this inequity seems to inspire.
For the record … I am not hot. And my avatar (as close an approximation of myself as I could get) isn’t especially hot either. But she is a she, and that seems to be the major requirement for hotness in Home.
And if you are a she in Home, you will certainly not suffer from a lack of attention, wanted or not. “Back off, she’s mine!” I witnessed one guy tell a group of dudes crowding around a particularly attractive female avatar.
Sometimes these guys will be perfectly pleasant people interested in nothing but a bit of polite conversation … sometimes, not so much. During one visit to Sully’s Bar, a number of people in the room were asking if anyone knew the secret code to unlock one of the locked doors. I knew the code and offered it up. Did I get a single thank you? Nope. But one guy did ask me, “Is that the serial # to your booty?”
During a visit to one of the hidden “Drake’s Fortune” rooms, another woman and I struck up a conversation. A flock of men promptly descended upon us like vultures in a scorched desert. One of them sat on the floor at my new friend’s feet and began petting her leg (using the “wave” function). “Do you like that?” he cooed repeatedly.
It could be that the average Home user simply happens to be a hormone-fueled adolescent yet to develop manners beyond those of a water buffalo's. But I suspect the real problem is that anonymity will always encourage a certain amount of bad behavior. Hide behind the digital mask of an avatar and it starts to feel like you can get away with almost anything. Certainly the bad behavior in Home is not unique to this particular virtual world. Players of “Second Life” and “World of Warcraft” have seen it all before.
“Just like the real world, there’s always going to be trouble makers,” Buser says, pointing out that Home is a heavily moderated space and that there are a number of ways to prevent harassment – you can block annoying players and report them to Sony.
Buser also believes that as people become more familiar with Home in the coming weeks, “you’ll start to see this kind of behavior settle down.” And he may be right. After this video of a couple of guys pulling a prank on some creepy Home players made the rounds, I noticed a decrease in the freak factor. It seems pawing at women avatars isn’t as much fun when you realize they may not be women after all.
Building your dream Home
Ultimately, I think visitors to Home are bored. It’s a sleek, always-sunny place lustrous in its digital perfection. But you can only spend so much time people-watching in the central plaza or buying furniture to fancy up your summer home. You can only dance the running man so long before you maybe go looking for trouble – just to spice things up a bit.
But Buser insists there is still much to come. He says Sony decided to go public with a beta, rather than a finalized product, because they wanted to reinforce the idea that Home is “a living, breathing, evolving world” … and that this is merely the beginning.
“What you see here today in week one is going to be totally different from what you’re going to see six months down the road,” he says pointing out that they have a “hugely packed pipeline of content” that’s on its way. Though he wouldn’t give specifics, he says there will be new virtual items, new spaces, new features and “a lot of events” to explore.
He says right now Sony wants feedback from Home visitors – suggestions of features, functions and other things that would make the experience more enjoyable and entertaining. He says they are listening closely to the people.
With that in mind, I’d like to submit a request from the ladies hanging out at Home: How about some virtual pepper spray?