When I spoke to Randy White in June of 2020, one of the areas we touched on was the need for more social experiences.  Why do they want to be entertained? Why do they go out to movies, or bowling, or restaurants? Randy’s opinion on this is they want to socialize.

“People want social experiences” has been a mantra of location-based entertainment for a couple of years now. It’s almost as widespread as “millennials prefer experiences over stuff.” It’s gotten to the point where the saying seems to have lost its meaning.

VR can be incredibly social. But early VR experiences were almost exclusively isolating. The 360-degree (may it rest in peace) video was a solo experience with no social component. Single-player games took people out of their existing reality where they might have had family and friends, and put them into a virtual space where they were isolated and alone.

Even as multiplayer games began to emerge, they were not inherently social. They used avatars to represent players that further disconnected people. Am I going to feel connected to a goofy looking cartoon or a robot bent on destroying me?

What is a Social Experience?

Last post I wrote about the difference between a shared and social experience. Movie theaters are a great example of a shared experience. We go to immerse ourselves into a story so that we can experience the same thing. We are not social during that experience. We can discuss our anticipation of it in advance, and we can reflect on it afterwards. But the movie is a shared experience.

Wedding Ceremony

A wedding is another example. The wedding ceremony is a shared experience.  We are there to share the moment with the bride, groom their family and friends. We quietly watch and listen. We aren’t discussing it with our neighbor.

The reception is a social experience. We take turns eating, drinking and dancing. We tell stories, we laugh at jokes. We make toasts. We play games, chasing garters and bouquets. Someone sneaks off to the bathroom to have sex (is that just the weddings I go to?).

Wedding Cake

What makes the reception social, and what can we learn from it in designing social experiences for entertainment?

Food and drink is a big part of it. Randy White, in our last interview, said,

“A lot of adults consider going to a restaurant better entertainment than going to an entertainment venue. We can’t socialize unless we have some sort of drink in our hand.  In the west it’s alcohol, in the Middle East it’s tea. Restaurants provide that.”

The other thing that makes the reception social is that the activities come in waves with frequent breaks between them. Those breaks are filled with food, drink, and conversation.

What are the hallmarks of a social experience?

It’s all about the conversation. Think about the amusement experiences that are have been popular over the years.

  • Top Golf: a group sit on a couch, and take turns eating, drinking and hitting golf balls containing RFID chips at targets on a driving range. 70% of Top Golf players do not identify as golfers.
  • Bowling: Up to 5 people per lane. One person throws a ball while four watch and talk.  Even the 5th person is talking as they approach the lane. Then the conversation picks up again as soon as the ball strikes the pins, (or rolls in the gutter in my case.)
  • Darts: Is a turn-based game with the added benefit of being one-handed.  You can play with a beer in your hand. Some serious players would scoff at this, but I am talking about darts in the social game sense.
  • Golden T Golf: One of the things that made Golden T such a popular bar game is that like Darts, you could play with one hand. The use of a trackball means you didn’t need to put your drink down when it was your turn.
  • Axe Throwing: Basically darts with the novelty factor of axes.  Some locations offer alcoholic beverages while throwing.
  • Billiards: Turn-based, where the conversation can continue even while you are shooting. Plenty of places to put your beer for a few seconds while shooting.

The commonality amongst all these activities is they are:

  1. Small groups – allow single conversations that can evolve over an evening.
  2. Turn-based – As one person plays, the others carry on the conversation.
  3. Quick turns – While the player takes a turn, they’re not out of the conversation for very long, and they can catch up quickly.
  4. Fun to Watch – Other players provide a quick distraction, so the conversation stays casual, light, and fun.

Social Experience Top Golf

The Activity Curates the Conversation

If the activity is not built around small conversational groups, it’s probably not social. It’s not about the technology, but how it’s designed into an experience and operated that makes the difference. An axe isn’t social, or not social. It’s an axe. Top Golf uses RFID chips in the balls to gamify the driving range, but the tech is mostly invisible to the player.  Virtual reality can be seen as isolating because when you’re wearing a headset, you’re not aware of who and what is going on around you in the real world. And the people watching have no idea what you’re doing because they cannot see it in the context of the experience the player is having. But if designed properly…

Virtual Reality Can Facilitate a Social Experience.

The Omni Arena from Virtuix is a reasonable example of a VR solution that was designed to be social. Four players enter the arena and sit together to register into the system. If they don’t know each other, they have a chance to meet and introduce.  Here they discuss what game they want to play while putting on their overshoes and store their personal items. They also get to watch the other people play and talk about what they’re seeing.

The game itself is seven minutes long. While the four players are in the game together, it’s not inherently social, because they’re talking about the game itself. They’re focused on the objective, or how to navigate the environment. It’s no more social than playing football.  Just because you’re playing together doesn’t make it a social experience. It’s active and competitive, but not really social.

After the game, players go back to their seats to take off their shoes and get their gear.  Then they go outside to another station where they can view and download a video of them playing the game. It’s an opportunity to be social again, and to reflect on the experience as a group.

There are lots of ways to use VR as the centerpiece of a social experience, but it requires thought and planning on the part of the solution developer and the operator.  Last week I wrote about how Punch Bowl Social in Denver created a social experience with virtual reality.

If you just see VR as part of an arcade, then social doesn’t matter, because arcades are mostly not social. They’re competitive, fun, and can be multiplayer, but that doesn’t make them social.  They don’t satisfy the base human need to socialize. Which is why, as Randy reminds us,

“The average American goes out to eat an average of 200 times a year, but only 12-15 times a year to an entertainment venue.”

Every entertainment business is a startup in the post-COVID landscape.  If you want to be successful in the new reality, you need to get back to startup mode: new business models and new ways of doing things. If you’re spending your time on financials and operating models, instead of on new hypotheses of what might work, then you’re likely doing the wrong things. With the lack of social interactivity due to the pandemic, people are craving social. The entertainment industry is primed for reinvention.

If you need help getting back into that mode, I am hosting a FREE event on Thursday (Friday in Australasia) where a group of experts will be presenting tangible strategies on how to Relaunch, Reboot and Reinvent your location-based VR business.  There are only about 40 spots left.  You can register for free at www.bobcooney.com/relaunch.  Also, there are three VIP passes left (only $10) that get you into the group mentoring session with me and 9 of your peers.  We will be discussing what YOU need to get back to business.