If physical distance and/or a pesky custody arrangement find you separated from your dad (or your kid) this Father’s Day, maybe a virtual holiday could fill in the gap. In the future that many envision, we’ll all be hanging out, working, and socializing in virtual spaces all the time, just like in 1996’s The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace.
For a preview of the Father’s Day of the Future, I spent some time hanging out with my teenage son in Meta’s version of virtual reality, searching for moments of connection and meaning and generally dicking around. (Meta provided me—and a few other Lifehacker staffers and their dads—Oculus Quest 2 headsets and game download codes to test out for this purpose, though I personally already owned one.)
Parents and new technology: a terrible combination
Any experience with a newb in VR starts with a learning curve, so if you’re going to go virtual with your dad, plan for at least 45 minutes of “did you get the invite? Now click ‘Accept,’” and “No, click the icon. The icon!”
How much of a hassle setup will be depends on the dad of course. Lifehacker Food Editor Claire Lower’s pop took to the virtual world easily. “He had memorized his wifi password, which is remarkable when you consider it’s a series of random numbers and letters,” Lower said. “I actually think he found using the headset more intuitive than I did.”
Deputy Editor Joel Cunningham’s father wasn’t able to clear the tech hurdle, however. “This isn’t exactly an easy setup to handle from 3,000 miles away,” Cunningham said. “If your dad is the kind of person who calls you in a panic because hackers have deleted all of his emails (they have done no such thing), I can assure you you will not be spending Father’s Day, or any day, with him in VR.”
Luckily, my father is long dead, and my Father’s Day partner is a tech-hep teenager, so we were able to get virtual together with only minor hiccups.
Virtual father-son bonding experience one: Horror movies in Meta Horizon Worlds
Launched nearly two years ago, Meta Horizon Worlds is Meta’s flagship app, so it seemed like a good place to start. My kid and I both like horror movies, so we decided to check out Eli Roth’s haunted house experience “Trick-VR-Treat.”
Critics have not been kind to Horizon Worlds, and I don’t entirely disagree with the overall consensus, but Eli Roth’s haunted house is an island of horrific goodness in a sea of shiny nonsense. After some initial trouble with the age-gate (you have to be over 18, and my son is not, or wasn’t until we adjusted his profile settings) we were able to gain entrance to the “attraction.”
The environment surrounding the VR movie is like everything in Horizon Worlds: It looks like Roblox and is full of children. The cartoon visuals are just not conducive to creepiness, so there was none of the “daring each other to go in” fun of a real haunted house. But the movie itself is great. It uses the immersion of VR to cast you as a character in a gory, fast-paced shock tale that mimics the thrills of a real life haunted house in surprising and satisfying ways. It’s particularly good because of how different it feels from the forced-happiness vibe of the rest of Worlds. It has a visceral vibe that virtual spaces so often lack. Highly recommended for fans of dark rides and scare flicks.
Dexter’s reaction: “I guess we did some bonding. We were able to laugh together about how much money [Meta] spent to make this place.”
Father/son togetherness rating: 7 out of 10. We did a fair amount of bonding over changing the date of birth on Dexter’s Meta account to thwart the age-gate, giving me the chance to impart fatherly wisdom about when it’s OK to pretend to be 18 on a computer.
Virtual father-son bonding experience two: Real VR Fishing
There is nothing more “Father’s Day” than taking your dad/kid on a good old fashioned fishing trip! So we headed into Real VR Fishing to cast our lines at virtual Crater Lake in Oregon.
VR Fishing’s realistic graphics are a welcome change of pace from the cartoon look of most VR. Casting is smooth and feels real, as does pulling in a fish. If anything, there are too many fish to catch; you need to set the difficulty on hard if you want the sitting-around-and-waiting experience of real fishing.
The best thing about this game is that my son and I were fishing together. Or at least, our avatars were fishing together. Like a true father-son fishing trip, things even got emotional between us on the shore of that placid (fake) lake. My avatar turned to his, and I said, “Son, your mother and I are getting a divorce.”
Claire’s dad dug fishing too. “Within minutes he was casting and reeling, and saying things like ‘Come here’ and ‘Aha! Gotchu,’” she said. “When I asked him what he was catching he said ‘This is a fantastical fish, but kind of looks like a brim.’”
Dexter’s reaction: “The best part was trying to hit each other with fishing rods.”
Father/son togetherness rating: 6 out of 10. While Real VR Fishing is a good game, father and son fishing trips are a time-honored tradition because it’s a way of teaching your kid something—showing them how to bait a hook and quietly wait, to enjoy solitude and nature. You don’t get any of that from virtual reality.
Virtual father-son bonding experience three: Cook-Out: A Sandwich Tale
Father/son relationships are more than just seeing horror movies and catching carp—sometimes you have to work. To simulate shared familial labor, we fired up Cook-Out, a virtual cooking experience in which up to four players work together in a cartoony kitchen to serve hastily prepared sandwiches to an impatient customer base of rats, rabbits, cats, and werewolves.
The game is great—a frantic, fast-paced experience that encourages cooperation, yelling, and spraying virtual ketchup at each other. Our flailing early efforts resulted in many picky cats leaving our restaurant unsatisfied, but we eventually worked out a system of cooperation and communication that allowed us complete one order after another. If I ever go full Bob’s Burgers and open a family run restaurant, it will probably be a lot like this.
Dexter’s reaction: “This was the most stressful experience of my life. I’ve played countless hours of competitive video games, and nothing is more stressful than Cook-Out.”
Father/son togetherness level: 9 out of 10. They say there’s a special bond between soldiers in combat, but it pales in comparison to the esprit de corps of trying to make an egg sandwich for a werewolf before the timer runs out.
How does spending family time in virtual reality compare to actually spending time together?
My son and I live in the same house and spend a lot of time together, so virtual reality felt like it added distance instead of taking it away. It was super fun, but it put a mediator—in this case Meta—between us. If I were physically distant from him (like I will be soon when he goes off to college, or prison) I could see it making us feel closer.
If we were emotionally distant it might help too: VR experiences give you something to focus on, so if you and Pops’ relationship is marked by phone calls with awkward pauses, working together in a fake sandwich shop with a clientele of rats might give you a way to be together without actually being together, and all the talking and listening that entails.