Wilhelm and I joke in our gaming group that we’ve been preparing all our lives for the COVID lockdown. No, we’re not preppers or neoapocalyptarians (I just made that up). No, like a lot of our friends, we’ve always found ourselves a bit removed from what apparently many people call life, the real world and everything.
A lifelong member of the Differently Social(tm) club, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in strange little bubble worlds like various forms of gaming, uncool, unpopular sports, hobbies and interests, and generally hanging around (IRL and virtually) with other weirdos, dorks and the socially ill at ease.
When the COVID lockdown hit, of course it caused massive disruption to everyone’s lives (mine included). The irony of course is that as Real Life went virtual, those of us who’ve been mostly one foot in, one foot out of virtuality didn’t really miss a beat on a lot of these newfangled ways to interact. We just called it “Tuesday”.
The pandemic has certainly reordered Things That Matter for many people, myself included. Without meaning to be glib, the phrase I use is “COVID giveth, COVID taketh” and it certainly has.
Something I was not expecting to capture my interest was real, virtual exercise. I’ve been an avid on again, off again road cyclist for most of my life. Finding the time to get in some good miles with work and real life has always been a challenge and I’ve never been big on trainers– a necessary evil, and Peloton is a good one, but doesn’t grab me the way it seems to grab some.
Working from home, I got back all of that prep/travel time that working outside of the home eats up. Lockdown still requires more intentionality to manage things that would otherwise be out of mind.
Getting decent exercise and a change of scenery has been difficult to obtain. Enter Zwift. A work contact mentioned that he was struggling with the same issues and, being an avid cyclist, had recently purchased a smart trainer and tried Zwift. It was clear he was hooked.
This contact was not the sort that I’d peg as what I’d call your typical group exercise enthusiast, so I got curious and decided to pull the trigger. Worst case scenario, I get some exercise on a trainer and one that varied difficulty based on terrain models would be different, so it couldn’t be all bad. What else was I going to do? Its lockdown.
What I hadn’t really expected was to get as sucked in as I have. The more I rode and experienced in Zwift, I realized this was more or less what I already spend a good deal of my hobby/interest time doing any way. Spending time in persistent, multiplayer virtual worlds, exploring and chasing various goals and achievements.
The Virtual Cycling World
The deeper I got into it, the more familiar it all seemed. Too familiar.
Avatar customization? Check.
Experience based progression, HUD, minimap, player list, in game chat? Check.
One persistent world, massively multiplayer? Check.
Explore strange and interesting zones? Check.
Visit beautiful tourist sites? Check.
Seasonal events? Check.
Group events (races and group rides)? Check.
Epic challenges and achievements? Check.
And of course, gear! New gear is unlocked by experience level, achievements or can be purchased with the in game currently which is earned during rides. Fortunately, there is no cash shop, just the monthly subscription.
All gear is obtained from progression or made available as a promotion/participation perk– an unlock code. I’m wearing one of the Amgen Tour of California jerseys that I found a code for since it was my home race. Many events offer one as well. I earned my Tour de Zwift kit for completing this year’s 8 stage event last month.
For the uninitiated, you choose your gear, choose a course on the main world, Watopia, or one of the rotating guest worlds– London, Yorkshire, France, Paris, Innsbruck, Richmond, New York– and then ride. The game adjusts the difficulty of your smart trainer to the terrain.
Given you’re sitting on a trainer, there is obviously no steering component (Note: they are working on one in beta for mountain biking which uses your phone to sense turns), so you basically run on rails. You can also “just ride” and divert to different courses at various junctions if desired. Fortunately, there is no collision component either.
The Social Equation
The other aspect which seems to make a difference is the social aspect. Riding in a shared world, is different even if you are going it alone. In most MMOs, I’m often solo, but enjoy being part of a persistent world where I’m aware there are other people even if I don’t choose to interact with them. Zwift is one universe world wide, so at any time you can encounter riders from all parts of the world on the roads.
In Zwift, there is a chat function, although as you can imagine, long conversations are mostly impossible. Many groups– “Clubs” aka guilds exist separate from the game proper but are being implemented in game. Many clubs and organizations host group rides which often utilize their own Discord server/channel, etc.
Riders following another closely will get a drafting advantage slightly easing the resistance the trainer provides. Its very noticeable. Its quite common to be riding along and meeting up with another rider or two going about the same pace and establishing a casual pickup paceline sharing the lead and cycling back to draft. Quite often these result in follower requests (see below).
There is the ubiquitous “Ride On”– literally a thumbs up you can give other riders along the course. Much like social media likes, Ride Ons are tabulated for a given ride and there are achievements for getting and giving them. As cheesy as it sounds, it is awfully nice to get a Ride On when you are toiling away on a particularly difficult section of course or just completed some personal record for a segment, etc. Its a shockingly positive and supportive environment.
Finally, like any good socially driven game, there’s an entire friend system which allows you to follow other riders (with appropriate privacy controls), see their activities (through your activity feed in game or the companion app) and meet up and ride with them in game if desired.
Just five more miles…
As a gamer, all of these factors contribute in the same way compelling games do to get in my head and motivate me to spend more time in game– in this case riding– and that’s been a very good thing. Working from home, I can be on Zwift in 5 minutes and ride for as little or as long and I can, any time of day or night on just about any terrain I can imagine.
And I have. Since December 1 when I got my trainer (and was out of shape), I’ve managed to complete my Mt. Everest challenge– 29k feet of climbing on the bike– and surmount the virtual Alpe du Huez which is a bucket list item for a cycling fan. Virtual Mt. Ventoux (also in game and gps perfect) is on the list next. I find my self looking for excuses to ride–even while I’m still in the throws of Valheim-mania, and that’s saying something.
So another COVID giveth, COVID taketh. I’m riding more, more consistently and more difficult courses than I probably ever have and am in better shape than I’ve been in several years. And this time I can chalk it all up to a video game.