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.

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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.

  • MAN! This article rang so true to me that I had to make an account just to comment. Where to begin? Well I've only been playing for like 27 days (since quarantine) I got laid off from the start of all this and without this game I'm honestly not sure where I would be as cheesy as that sounds. I've played so much that I've hit 45 in gold hoarders, 40 in order of souls, like 39 I think in merchant and around 30 in hunters. You really hit home with me on the whole social aspect. As someone who is diagnosed with social anxiety, and who is pretty much agoraphobic. I only leave the house when I absolutely have to. For work really and doctors apt. But this game has honestly started to change my life around and I know this may sound cheesy. But I always played single player games and now I play with other people. So much so that it has inspired me to start streaming. I dont have a camera yet and my mic is almost about spent but I actually have to goal now to start trying to stream. I even made a youtube channel today to hopefully even do videos. I filed for unemployment for the first time in my life (I'm 34) so that's a big deal. But when I can my funds somewhat back to normal I am going to invest a couple hundred bucks into streaming stuff a cam and a few other things like a mic and what not. Ah I feel like a weirdo laying all this out there but hey its sea of thieves lol. For real this game has truly opened me up and as I write this I have a few years coming out. I know a lot of people will not understand but if you would have seen me even a month ago I wouldn't be writing this. I struggle with severe depression and dont really have real life friends. But for the past month I have been playing with buddies every day. I went from like 6 friends on my friends list to a lot more now. I dont actually own the game but I have game pass for for xbox and will have it for a lil bit lounger. Sorry if I come off a lil sappy but your post really hit home with me. All that being said, no sea of thieves is not is not perfect and yes there is toxic people. But that's anywhere you go. I was actually thinking yesterday how much this game has changed me in the past month and opened me up and I have to say it's amazing. Almost every day I create a post looking for newish people to show them the ropes. Because as we all know there are a lot of little things you need to learn like not anchoring unless you have too, or how fishing and bait works, how to use your loud speaker and so on and so forth. I actually found a humble gift last night and saved it till I was about to get off and ran into a guy that just started and was able to help him out and we played for hours. I told him about the maiden voyage vault to get the gold and doubloons. I still play solo alot or with one or two people. Only do adventure mode and still never have done a fort lol. Not that I dont want to I just have so much fun fishing and doing voyages and dont play with to many bigger groups yet but I'm working to it lol. I've done one tall tale and that was heart of fire and man was it intense. Haha so I still have a lot to learn and many more friends to make. I ran into this article searching for when the bee update is. I know it's coming in a few days so I'm super excited. My gamertag is the same as my screen name here so if you see me out on the seas say Ahoy! Hopefully my mic will still be working by then because my cat chewed it up a little and it's on the fritz! Anyways thanks for letting me rant and write this small book! I'm going to go play sea of thieves now! Hope to see you there!
  • Wow man, that's wonderful.
    I don't know you, but I feel happy for you 😁
  • Thanks for sharing your story with Sea of Thieves! Really happy to hear you were able to connect to the game recently, especially in these crazy times we're living in. Best of luck on those video adventures! Maybe I'll see ya on the seas!
  • Wow. That's so awesome. I'm really happy for you. And trust me. There are people out there who are just as nice in person. I'm glad it's really helping you.
  • Awww I'm so happy for you! Reading you post made me want to sign in just to commend your sharing and upvote this post! Sounds like this game really did wonders for you and energized you to give back. It's a great feeling! I hope you'll have the opportunity to become the streamer you want to be and help others like yourself into enjoying the social aspect of gaming :)
  • Actually no, when Sea of Thieves first released (because it had bugger all content) you basically had to play with people otherwise the incredibly boring grind became readily apparent. Now you can quite easily have immense amounts of fun playing solo because there is so much more to do. Also yes, everyone please use game chat and not party chat, it pleases me greatly when I hear someone barking over their mic to their crew mates that they are going to attack me, or telling me what treasure they have, or whatever.
  • I wish it were true...I've usually been shot by people who are waving at me, or people screaming expletives, or having headwinds 9/10 times when trying to get to an objective. But other than that, fun times!
  • Oh God, the head winds. All the freaking time. As an aside I've got a half decent bunch of peeps that I play with, if you're ever interested, hit me up on Live (Sin Ogaris). Although I'm an Aussie so timezone's might be screwy.
  • I liked this article. Sea of Thieves is a place where I made a lot of friendships, some long lasting. We play weekly and we've had a lot of great experiences. Sure, there's people who are in to grief and harass, those are the ones that don't get it. People will be like that no matter what game you play. But it's still a wonderful game.
  • In the UK lockdown I actually started to play this again with my 3 kids. It's really surprised me how much has changed. It's even better than when I stopped. Loving it all over again.
  • Played yesterday for like 6 hours with my best friend? Felt like 2? No games on my Switch or PS4 have EVER made me lose track of time like that. We got like three quests done? Didn't feel sluggish or bad at all. People can say all the garbage spew they want: "Oh it's not singleplayer or cinematic like God of War." "It launched early access." "The graphics are bad because I don't understand what style is." "It's gamepass filler."
    It's a DAMN GOOD GAME, and I realized that my third time ever playing it yesterday, I'd argue Nintendo quality or bar setting for Xbox, it took a while to get there but when people flood into Xbox next generation it'll feel so new to people. Currently, it's an underappreciated gem, and with each wave of coverage it gets it continues to peak. Pumped for Everwild.
  • Funny enough PCGamer a really reputable outlet gave Sea Of Thieves best ongoing game of 2019. Beating Fortnite, FF14 online and well all of the rest. It also hit over 10 million players end of last year. So it's really already catching peoples attention.
  • What is the best way to get started with Sea of Thieves? I'm a solo player, have a pretty big friends list but nobody I can count on to be able to game when I can (pretty much late at night after the kids are in bed). I've heard going out there on your own is a suicide mission. Or at least it was when the game launched? Any advice appreciated!
  • Howdy! I would say generally speaking, going solo is extremely challenging. My honest opinion if your typical group of friends isn't online is to try just matchmaking with a random crew. I've had pretty good luck connecting with cool people when my squad isn't online. The "looking for group" function on Xbox is awesome too if you want to make sure to play with a group who will use game chat.
  • Ye this article also made me to create an account. But I dont have such great experience like Dr3amSmok3r . I bought the game on Xbox and since its play anywhere I started to play the game with my son PC/Xbox. The game looks and plays great no doubt about it. I hate only one thing about this game and that is the players in the game. In the begining it was really fun we really enjoyed the game but than almost everytime we joined the game we were attacked by random players mostly for no reason at all. Yes I know its a pirate game and this is the way pirates live , right ? Stealing from others and shooting others and all that Sparrow stuff but that thing made me and my son stop playing the game. I really like the game so maybe one day when there will be an option to play the game cooperatively without being afraid of some hatefull players who just want to sink your ship for fun than I ll get back to the game and enjoy it .