Waves of Change: Battling Social Anxiety in Sea of Thieves

By Mark Delaney,
When I wrote my rather glowing review of Sea of Thieves back at launch, my praise didn't sit well with many readers. Since then, every news post or guide we write about Rare's polarizing pirate adventure gets at least a few comments joking about the game still being in early access. It's really no wonder why some don't like the game. Progression is measured only in cosmetic rewards, there's no RPG system to chase up a skill tree, and the somewhat basic outline is antithetical to many other games' design these days, especially those that offer shared world MMO experiences. Suffice it to say, Sea of Thieves has weathered a storm of controversy since March. Despite all that, it remains my favorite game of the year — and by an ever-increasing margin.

Whereas a few months ago, I thought it was a fun placeholder for my Game of the Year until I got to see if Spider-Man or Red Dead Redemption 2 live up to their respective hype, at this point, triple-digit hours into my pirate life, I can't see any game overtaking Sea of Thieves as my favorite experience of the year and one of my true highlights of the generation. It's for many reasons I speak so strongly about it, but one of the most unexpected joys I've found in playing Thieves is how it has fundamentally and forever changed the way I play video games. If my lifelong social anxiety was a sailboat, Sea of Thieves has delivered countless cannonballs to the hull and left that anxiousness splintered and me unfathomably sociable and eager to play with others in a way I've never experienced.

Sea of Thieves

I've written previously about my yearning to play games alone in an industry moving unrelentingly toward more always-online, shared world, multiplayer-only experiences. So when I was assigned the Sea of Thieves review, it was difficult to jump into, as the game really prides itself on the larger crew experiences. I enjoyed my times in the beta, even including those where I joined crews with strangers, but a sense of unease always lingered. For most of my life, multiplayer gaming meant I'd have my mic off or muted and not speak to other players whom I didn't know. It feels silly to even write it now, as a 29-year-old who has only just recently begun to get over these hurdles, but I'm hoping (and expecting) some of you reading can relate.

As the weeks went on in Sea of Thieves, I did still spend much of my time in a solo ship — a "sloop" for the uninitiated — but I could sense something was changing. As Sea of Thieves puts you into an instance with other players, none of whom you're likely to know, this strange shared PvP/PvE hybrid world demanded more of me than I was comfortable to give. In Sea of Thieves, when two or more sloops pass each other at sea, there's an unspoken agreement to live and let live. Not all pirates respect this common law, of course, but in over 100 hours of playing, I'm confident almost always this has been the case for me, as it has been for many others. This was the first step in this eye-opening process. These brief and often non-verbal interactions — wave emotes exchanged and you're off — were like me dipping my toes into the social side of the game. It wasn't riddling me with anxiety to communicate in this way because it was still unspoken and so friendly.

Such moments soon after gave way to me, still solo slooping, now approaching other solo sloopers when they were on islands. I'd abandon my ship, approach them playing a tune and using the text comms to make my truce explicit, still without speaking a word. Often times this other pirate and I would go on the rest of our adventures together, voicelessly, but not silently, as we'd play music, share barrels of grog, chase skeletons, dig for treasure, and split our loot at the end. Quite plainly, we would be social. That's new, I thought, as it became more and more regular an occurrence.

Soon after that, the first major expansion released. For critics of the game, The Hungering Deep maybe wasn't the content drop that turned the game around in their eyes, but for me, the two-week event was the moment where Sea of Thieves went from a game I was really enjoying to a game I will forever adore. Gone were the days in years past of me pretending to have no mic so as to avoid voice chat. Now, as The Hungering Deep demanded not just great teamwork with your own crew but the involvement of at least one other pirate not in your crew, the game took on a whole new look. PvP battles decreased, the seas were friendlier, and total strangers were working together to defeat the mighty Megalodon.

Sea of Thieves screenshots

I wanted in on the experience and its rewards, so there was no longer any beating around the bush. I had to play the game Rare was always intending. I had to be especially social. I used my mic sometimes before this already, but in The Hungering Deep, I took a lead role on my crew in organizing our plans. Recruiting another crew, assigning roles, banging Merrick's drum from Shark Bait Cove until we arrived at the summoning location, I was no longer the voiceless ally I was in April, far from the totally aloof player I was in March. Suddenly, I was laughing, chatting, and even helping lead the way with two galleons full of strangers.

A few months ago, the mission parameters for The Hungering Deep would've read like a horror story to me, but now, a few weeks removed from the event, it remains my fondest gaming memory of 2018 and has cemented Sea of Thieves as a game I'll always cherish. Since that campaign ended, Rare has kept at it with more events, like the recent Skeleton Thrones and the ongoing Gunpowder Skeletons. Like before, these events don't just suggest you play with others, but for certain objectives, it's required. I've gone out of my way to chase these rewards with strangers, flagging down ships with potential allies aboard, calling out to them with my speaking trumpet to get them to team up with me. Sometimes these other pirates are now those that don't speak. I often wonder if it's because they're shy or anxious and it makes me a more empathetic pirate. I try to greet others at sea with friendliness, show them the proverbial ropes if need be, and ensure those new to the game (a constant thanks to Game Pass), have a memorable first voyage.

These maneuvers would be far out of my comfort zone as recently as the spring season, but on Rare's waters, I'm somehow comfortable in a way I've never felt before. I haven't played many other multiplayer games since this transformation but I've already seen changes in those cases too, confirming Sea of Thieves' waves of change have positively impacted me elsewhere. Social anxiety has been with me my whole life, and in a dozen other ways I'm sure it's still something with which I have to contend, but thanks to Sea of Thieves, it's getting easier — one voyage at a time.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.