I looked around the sunny basketball court while Paul Katsen, Gym Class: Basketball VR (opens in new tab) CEO, welcome me to the game. The sun rose, or it might set. The orange glow painted the stadium with a relaxing atmosphere. I heard Paul’s voice grow louder as he approached, so I faced him, realizing in a flash that the focus of my eyes was not private.
My avatar was shaking just like me. In front of me Paul’s avatar was gesturing as he spoke, moving as the real man did all the way to Texas. He then pointed to a ball, bounced it a few times and threw it to me. I caught it, feeling the vibration of the impact.
Having only played single-player party VR titles like Beat Saber and Pistol Whip, multiplayer VR was, in my naive mind, the stuff of Ready Player One. However, after ten minutes of playing Gym Class: Basketball VR, I thought of these cliché words — “The future is now.”
I have previously written about whether the VR gym can replace the gym (opens in new tab) for Live Science. In that article, I said that while VR fitness games are fun, you should exercise in the real world if you want the social side of fitness. Not anymore. After loading Meta Quest 2 and spending an hour shooting hoops and dunking—an act that requires squatting—I was pretty tired, and the whole time I was chatting with other people.
Most surprising of all was how genuinely human the experience felt. The the best VR headsets are effective communication tools. We often misread each other during instant messaging and sometimes through voice chat. VR introduces the dimension of body language, providing the social cues often missing from other gaming conversations.
While it’s not exact, and we don’t have facial markings yet – I don’t think it’s too far in the future – playing basketball with Paul and the gang felt like I was right there with them. I wasn’t left wondering what these people were like in real life, because our time on the virtual court felt just as real as meeting a caged basketball court in New York.
Paul got the urge to move into VR after meeting up with an old high school friend due to the lockdown. He and his friend usually talked on the phone, reminiscing about old times, but this time they met in a VR world to play table tennis. Paul was amazed at this. They were thousands of miles apart, yet there they were playing table tennis together. Instead of reminiscing past memories like a standard phone call or video call monitoring, they created new ones.
This moment led Paul to basketball. Basketball courts are social spheres, not just competitive sports courts. Shooting Hoops is synonymous with hangout — one doesn’t have to play a strict game, but rather chat and occasionally shoot or bounce. And that’s what we did in virtual court. Dribbling, aiming and diving were things we had to do with our hands as we spoke. Basketball is also a great game for VR because of its physical nature. Your avatar mimics your body language as you dribble, dunk and jump or dunk. If you want to add a little flourish, everyone will see.
While the VR basketball experience was new to me, there was also something very familiar about it. And it’s something I’ve been missing for over a decade. Unless you’re into online gaming, chances are the only virtual space you inhabit is social media. Those carefully curated profiles and meticulously edited posts are not the same as real human connections, and it’s all too easy to forget that. Playing Gym Class: Basketball VR reminded me of my time spent online in the mid-2000s, strolling through the desert in RuneScape (opens in new tab) while having spontaneous conversations on MSN Messenger — it felt like I was hanging out with friends.
We used to log on to these sites, socialize for a while and then log off. We never checked out RuneScape in the middle of a meal with loved ones because there was time and space for that. Building real connections on social media can be difficult, and yet we stay connected for eternity. The scroll is eternal and there is no definite end, as there is with, say, a game of basketball — real or virtual.
Gym Class: Basketball VR reminded me that the online realm can be a place to make memories — memories that aren’t dopamine fishing in a sea of loneliness and narcissism. In the game, you can customize your own stadium with shops and designs. You can invite people, go hang out at their courts, then play a serious game or just talk, pass and shoot. It’s exercise, it’s meeting friends and meeting new people in an organic environment. It is malleable. You may be familiar with other great social VR apps like Wreck Room or Gorilla Tag, but I recommend you give it a try. Even if you’re not into basketball, it has an irresistible allure.
Taking off the headset and walking back to my apartment was like waking up from a dream, but the memories didn’t start to fade away. I felt good, energized. If you’re feeling tired of what you’re seeing online right now, fear not. There is still a genuine internet connection outside of social media and core online play. If you have a VR set, give it a try the next time you want to meet a friend.
Gym Class VR is now available in Meta Quest 2, Meta Quest Pro, and the original Meta Quest via the Oculus Store (opens in new tab). The game is free, but there are in-app purchases.