For $16, my wife and I got access to two rubber golf clubs, neon balls, and a sequence of 18 amoebic, turfed-up, basically flat holes along the side of Big Finger Boulevard. The stakes were high: loser buys lunch. I kept score with one of those miniature red pencils that always find a way to stab you in the thigh, no matter which way you put it in. (Spoiler: I won by 8 strokes and still bought lunch.)
Midway through our game, it hit me: this is the first time we've played "meatspace" mini golf since we discovered "VR mini golf." During the peaks of the pandemic, my wife and I tried out different experiences in virtual reality together. It's like date night, but the future.
We'd each grab our headsets, go into different rooms, and then meet in some pixellated world for 30 minutes of putt-putt. You get the hang of it pretty quick. Now that I've played IRL mini-golf again, I can fully appreciate how good the Pro Putt app does of getting the basics down.
Putting requires mastery over angle and power. In VR mini golf, you're standing up, you're tilting your wrists, and you're swinging a controller (hopefully, without knocking over a lamp or a beer). It's like Wii sports, but with a Macintosh strapped to your face. Unlike the 2001 days of mini golf on addictinggames.com (when you used a computer mouse to putt) the technique in VR is basically 1:1, Sure, maybe the physics are 10% worse, the friction of synthetic turf isn't exact, and you might find it weird swinging without the weight of a club. A pro golfer would surely notice the differences. But mini-golf is already a bastardized "sport," and the exactness of technique is far less important than the fun you're having.
I had a good time playing "real," non-Matrix-mini-golf. The sun was out, and I could actually see my wife (instead of seeing a floating cap and club– in ProPutt, everyone's a phantom). Still, the more I played "real" golf, the more annoyances I noticed. I kept a list, and found 6 benefits of VR mini golf over the analog version. Some are subtle, and some are substantial.
Slope visualization– All golf novices radically miscalculate the slope of a course. In VR, you can hold a grip button, and a topography grid magical overlays the green. It's actually great for beginners. It's an augmented visual aide, like something you'd see on an ESPN replay.
Pristine turf– The mini golf course on Big Finger Boulevard was renovated 5 years ago, but still, some of the turf was battered and folding up. It was generally fine, but once it misdirected the ball. Virtual courses don't need maintenance.
No bending over– At the end of every round, I'd bend over to grab the ball from the hole (except on Hole 16, the "impossible course," which must have been some twisted practical joke from the architects). My back and knees are fine with this now, but ask me again in 30 years.
No waiting– When you play mini golf, you're at the mercy of the squad in front of you. In our case, we had a couple that was drinking beer and making out in between holes. Beginners don't know golf etiquette. In VR, it's like you and your friends rent out the whole venue. No one holds you up, and you have permission to dilly dally.
Insane landscapes– The course near us is architecturally underwhelming. Sure, there were trees and sun, but the holes were flat, mostly boring, and alongside a 4-lane road. The courses in VR mini golf are radical, fantastic, and sometimes absurd and hilarious. There's no limits in construction or budget. The basic technique and physics of mini-golf apply, but your surrounded by waterfalls, volcanos, and exotic animals.
Automatic scorekeeping– I'm quick with math, but keeping score is a low-grade nuisance. The 4-inch pencil kept falling out from behind my ear. I eventually resorted to the right pocket (the cell phone pocket). After each hole, I take out the pencil, take out the card, unfold the card, grip an unsharpened, undersized pencil, scribble chicken scratch onto the palm of my left hand, all while balancing a rubber club on my left waist, and pinning a condensating water bottle in my right arm pit. Even as a highly-coordinated person, I stabbed myself at least twice as I learned this dance. This sounds like a first world problem, and it is. But still, computers do this better.
Sure there are some notable disadvantages with VR. Maybe you're not down with having a 17 ounce prototype machine strapped to your face for 60 minutes. Maybe you like reading people's facial expressions. Or maybe you just like spending time in the sun.
If it's a September afternoon and my wife and I have to decide-- between strapping machines to our face, or, driving five minutes to the course on Big Finger Boulevard-- we'll take the analog option, probably every time.
But the key advantage of VR mini golf is the ability to play it with people anywhere in the world. It's best utilized when played with friends and cousins, out of state, over beers. Sure, there's no sun, and no faces (yet)– but you get 90% of the mini-golf basics, plus the 6 benefits I listed above, PLUS, the co-presence of another person across the world. You get their voice, their body language, and you're both exploring a classic analog game in a virtual world.
From my experience, VR mini golf points to what the "killer apps" of the Metaverse might be. I think most of the VR futurists are wrong– they forecast millions of people suspended in a massive multiplayer, immersive Fortnite, where people slaughter each other with weapons in photo-realistic environments, playing hours a week to climb leaderboards and earn cryptocurrencies. The Metaverse will be way more casual than that. They're considering what computers games will look like in VR, but we should consider what analog games will look like in VR.
Think of the analog games you've played through your life, and now think of the memories tied to them. Mini golf. Ping pong. Chess. Poker. Sure, computers tried to capture these things. Pong from 1972 brought games to a machine. Mini Putt from the 2000s brought games online. Online chess and poker made online games multiplayer. But all of these fall short of capturing the real thing. They were flat, cartoon approximations, lacking social magic. The Metaverse will fuse the social power of analog 3D games with the global reach of the Internet.