Play Station's Virtual Home Is Less Than Hospitable

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, December 28, 2008

"Dude, this place is quiet," says one avatar, a rather generic-looking 20-something guy as we lurk on one side of the Home central plaza, watching virtual people go by on what appears, on my television screen, to be a sunny day in a modern town center. "This could get boring fast," texts another in agreement, a speech balloon popping up over his head.

This month, Sony introduced a virtual world to the PlayStation 3 in a move designed to intrigue the gamers of the world by giving them a virtual place to mingle and hang out. Fire up Home for the first time and you can build your virtual self from scratch, selecting everything from facial features to the clothes that will cover your digital body. After that, off you go to wander around advertising-laden movie theaters, malls and bowling alleys, to meet and converse with your fellow PS3 fans.

It's possible to never spend a dime in Home, which is a free download, but Sony is hoping that users will be willing to part with a little money to spruce up their characters. The default offerings in your virtual closet are a little boring, you see, but the nearby mall allows you to spiff up your wardrobe with selections generally priced at a dollar or less. You can even spend a few bucks and buy a vacation home in Home, if the default studio apartment that you're allotted isn't stylish enough for you.

To generate buzz for their latest titles, publishers will soon be adding their own areas to Home, as a means of showcasing their wares. Individual users, what's more, will soon be able to open their own virtual "clubs."

Jack Buser, director of the PlayStation Home project, says the new service is an effort to bring a new element of socialization to the gaming world. Most PS3 owners are online and most use social networking sites such as Facebook, so it just makes sense, in his view, that this thing will be a hit. Buser predicts this virtual world will be regarded years from now as a "milestone in the history of videogames."

This hasn't been a good year for virtual worlds, which have been in the same amount of turmoil as the real world. Google, for example, is pulling the plug on Lively, a virtual environment it launched earlier this year. And news service Reuters is shuttering a virtual bureau it had opened in the once-buzzworthy Second Life. In a farewell note posted last month, reporter Eric Krangel confessed that he found using the service "about as fun as watching paint dry."

If that's the standard, I can say that Home is totally as fun as Second Life.

As seems to be standard practice for Sony's PlayStation services, Home users can expect to have to regularly download updates before they log on to the service. Last night, I had to download version 1.03 of the Home software in order to take a peek in this virtual world. The next morning I had to download and install version 1.04. It only takes a minute, but it annoys. What if you had to download an update for your phone every time you wanted to make a call?

And what if your phone had less functionality after you did so?

As I fire up Home I read that the 1.04 update has disabled the voice chat feature, which means that instead of using their voices to talk each other via headset, Home users are only able to chat via text messages. No problem if you have a USB keyboard, like me, on which you can clatter away to your heart's content. But most Home owners evidently don't, so Home is a place filled with avatars staring at each other blankly as their conversation mate laboriously composes their thought via PS3 game controller, a process sort of like texting on a cell phone. ("U play GTA4?")

During the course of a day spent in Home, my fellow avatars identify themselves as being from Louisiana, Indiana, Texas, and Ontario, Canada. One player says he's in Saudi Arabia, but who knows? This is a virtual world, after all. Though the social scene appears to be gender balanced, I'd be stunned if female hands were behind any of the game controllers.

To try to create a family-safe environment, Sony uses filtering software that converts any bad language with which you try to pollute this sunny world into asterisks. In some places, you see a lot of them, such as when I visit the virtual movie theater.

Yawn. The only thing playing here is a trailer for the vampire flick "Twilight," which runs on an endless loop. But wait, there's a fight going on in the crowd between two angry gamers! No fists are thrown -- that's not one of the system software's limited options -- so it's just a bunch of avatars standing around awkwardly in a heated conversation that eventually descends entirely into asterisks.

As I lurk by the plaza craving small talk, one avatar tells me optimistically that he thinks Home "has a lot of ***ential." It takes me a second to grasp, then it dawns on me that the pesky language filtering system is at work again: No marijuana references, okay people?

Buser told me that he sees Home as a place where people will talk about anything from HDTVs to books, but my own non-videogame-related conversational forays go nowhere. I offer up: "Dude my 401(k) got pwned this year!" (Pwned is Web slang for brutalized.) Then: "Anybody know a good eggnog recipe?"

Feeling like a loser as the crowd ignores me, I retire to the mall to upgrade my image, investing in a snowman head and a gray business suit. Never was $1.50 better spent: On my return to the Home central plaza, I find the new appearance makes me a hit, especially with the "ladies."

"Sup Frosty!" one asks, "why aren't you melting?" I quickly win a handful of friend requests from gamers amused by the "business snowman" look. Success!

Home, at times, looks like a world of narcoleptics. People -- the real ones back at home on their sofas -- sometimes wander away from their game controllers, and leave their avatars standing unguarded in the virtual world. When that happens, after a few minutes, their avatar appears to nod off and Z's appear over his or her head in a text bubble.

Back in the real world, a few imaginary Z's appear over my head as I consider firing up Home again the following day, but as I look at all the new "friends" listed on my PS3, I feel a bit warmer. There ain't much going on at Home yet, but who knows. A few dozen mandatory updates down the road, and this virtual world might have some ***ential.

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