How Sea of Thieves redefines social gaming during a time of social distancing

Sea Of Thieves Wave
Sea Of Thieves Wave (Image credit: Windows Central)

It's no secret that Rare's pirate-themed games-as-service title, Sea of Thieves, launched in a rather polarizing state. For many, there just wasn't quite enough content to keep them coming back. Many newcomers had grown accustomed to games telling them precisely what they needed to do and how they needed to play to "have fun."

Sea of Thieves, on the other hand, is a social-driven experience quite the contrary. With an emphasis on what the dev team lovingly describes as "tools not rules," it's up to the player to dive into this world and craft their own story, adventure, and ultimately, fun. In the world of Sea of Thieves, traditional content takes a backseat to the thrill of interacting with other players online and how everybody creates an experience.

This bold ideology goes against a lot of core principles (or cliches in many cases) of modern game design and forces a certain level of engagement from the player. People unwilling or unsure of how to accept these new design philosophies were quick to dismiss the title as boring, repetitive, and for a handful of vocal objectors with less poetic nuance. For better or worse, Sea of Thieves is a game unlike any other, and to fully appreciate and enjoy this beautifully crafted world, you must step outside of your comfort zone and embrace an experiment in social gaming.

You have to be social in Sea of Thieves, and that's awesome

Sea of Thieves

Source: Microsoft (Image credit: Source: Microsoft)

We all have our creature comforts, the safe little things we subconsciously do in our day-to-day routines. For a ton of players, myself included, this means booting up our console of choice and instinctively doing one of two things — either starting a closed party to invite your usual group of friends or launching a single-player game.

Both of these options isolate us in different ways. In some instances, it's perfectly healthy to fall back on these cozy habits and wrap ourselves in the proverbial safety blanket. But what makes Sea of Thieves so special is that it not only encourages you to abandon these predispositions, it also demands something else if you want to immerse yourself in the experience fully.

Communicating with your crew to help safely dock your ship or address any deep-sea mishaps involving rogue landmasses is exhilarating and forces accountability on all parties. Whether your crew is a group of close friends or strangers online, your enjoyment is directly tied to what you put into the session. If your rowdy band of pirates has amassed a gigantic horde of treasure, but nobody addressed the large holes in the hull of the ship, there's a strong chance you might lose everything you've worked towards for that haul. On the surface, this sounds incredibly frustrating and disincentivizing, but as someone who's immersed themselves in this world, I've rarely felt a greater sense of camaraderie with my fellow players in a video game.

For quite some time, game chats have been rife with negative connotations. We've all had horrifying experiences with aggressive teens shouting explicit and hauntingly vivid descriptions of coital interactions with our relatives. Part of this comes from the perceived humor of anonymity on the internet, but primarily this stems from some folks just being garbage people. For years I had no interest in in-game chat for the above reasons, but Sea of Thieves completely renewed my faith in this mechanic and, quite frankly, humanity. Game chat went from a silly option used for occasional trolling, to the primary way I play the game. For the first time in a very long time, I found myself wanting to engage and interact with strangers in a video game.

In a game where pirates rule, it's never safe to assume someone's intentions. This is where game chat truly shines. Unlike many online lobbies where competition is the driving factor for communication, almost anything can unfold in Sea of Thieves. Are you in the mood to engage in combat and rob a crew of their plunder, or are you in search of friendly players to form a mighty alliance? These internal dialogues are continually taking place while you play. Seeing a random pirate on an island fills you with this intense mix of excitement, fear, joy, and uncertainty. You're never quite sure if this encounter will be with a jovial sailor looking for fun on the high seas or a rogue agent sent to distract you while their crew secretly sinks your ship with a carefully placed explosive barrel. Sometimes a proper conversation with a stranger can completely change the tide and prevent disaster for you and your crew.

Can it help players in other ways?

Sea Of Thieves Skullcloud

Source: Miles Dompier/Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Miles Dompier/Windows Central)

This is all well and good, but what about the people with severe social anxiety? Can they also get something from this setup? Without imparting gross amounts of hyperbole or trying to impersonate a budget internet therapist, I genuinely believe this pirate sandbox can help some individuals slowly confront and hopefully gradually overcome some of these issues. Not only does the game demand you socialize if you want to get the most out of it, but the nature of the chat and how everybody needs to work together can create comforting and productive interactions.

As someone who spent a good chunk of his childhood in speech therapy and isolated on the playground, I completely understand how debilitating social anxiety can be. I would never scream "Sea of Thieves cures social anxiety" from the rooftops, but I think under the right circumstances, and for people who are genuinely invested in making changes, the social nature of the game has the potential to help. For me, I noticed a significant change in my online gaming habits after my time on the seas. I actively began seeking out other titles that had unique game chat or socially charged gameplay elements.

It's not all perfect on the high seas

Sea Of Thieves Eat your banana

Source: Miles Dompier/Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Miles Dompier/Windows Central)

While I'm clearly a huge advocate for what Sea of Thieves is trying to accomplish, I'm not oblivious to the slew of complaints and the reasons people have them. For me, this game is doing something wholly unique, and that's bound to come with some learning curves. It's a radical concept to wrap your mind around in some regards, and Rare's latest voyage into the social gaming space is anything but familiar.

Games like Sea of Thieves offer a social experience that cannot be replicated in any other medium

I won't make everyone a believer or supporter of this endeavor, and that's absolutely fine, but I've never been more invested in a game's future or success. My hopes and expectations for social interactions in open-world games have completely changed following my extended sailing sessions. While this may be uncharted waters for many, I sincerely hope other developers look at what Rare has built and embraced a more friendly future.

In a time where our day to day lives have never been more uncertain, and our ability to socialize with our friends, families, co-workers, and members of our community has been legally restricted in many regions due to a global pandemic, games like Sea of Thieves offer a social experience that cannot be replicated in any other medium. Empathy for the people we share this society with is critical in working towards the light at the end of this dark tunnel, and the best way to truly understand another person is to engage in genuine conversation. Unique social innovations with game chat and player interaction like those introduced in Sea of Thieves eliminate some of the cold impersonality of modern online gaming. If you're looking for a way to stay social while safely distancing from those around you, I don't think I could recommend a better game.

Bottom line: Share your story!

To celebrate the social nature of this game, I'd love to open the comment section up to fans and critics alike. For the folks who've discovered what makes Sea of Thieves so special, please share your stories and favorite memories. For the players who just aren't connecting with the experience, I'd love to hear what's keeping you from enjoying the game and what you've been playing to stay in touch with friends and family during these days of quarantine.



Miles Dompier

Miles Dompier is a Freelance Video Producer for Windows Central, focusing on video content for Windows Central Gaming. In addition to writing or producing news, reviews, and gaming guides, Miles delivers fun, community-focused videos for the Windows Central Gaming YouTube channel. Miles also hosts Xbox Chaturdays every Saturday, which serves as the Windows Central Gaming weekly podcast.