One of our favourite articles from the past year, originally published February 25, 2022.
One of the main selling points for the Steam Deck for many is the fact it's super portable. A gaming handheld with the power to play top games wherever you like, Valve has said. But is it really as practical to take to a pub or bar as we'd like it to be?
There are so many factors that give me anxiety around using a gaming device in public. Utter deal breakers, like the necessity of using voice commands in certain games. If you're reading from the US, you may never have been subjected to the awful cringe that was those old Nintendo DS commercials—i.e. some lady chatting to her imaginary dogs on the bus.
Yeah, that's not gonna be me. I want my public gaming experience to be covert, unassuming, and above all: quiet.
When I got my hands on Valve's sought-after gaming handheld, then, one of my main questions was "How loud is the Steam Deck, really?" If it didn't drown out the conversations of people sitting next to me in a bar, maybe I wouldn't have to hide in my windowless, bottom-floor apartment playing Elden Ring for the next month.
At the same time, I had visions of being laughed out of bars, and forever labelled antisocial for playing videogames on the Steam Deck, rather than shouting at sweaty men kicking balls back and forth on the big screen. Then there was always the possibility I might've been able to bag some new friends by brandishing my favourite RPG in public.
"Even sports-likers are gamers today, maybe it won't be so bad," I reassured myself.
So, in the name of science, I took the Steam Deck to a local sports bar to see what would happen… and the place was heaving. Manchester United supporters littered all floors, each one waiting to claim my seat for a better view of the clammy, mud-covered athletes being projected over my head. And I just sat proudly tapping away at my little portable gaming PC.
As expected, I was closely followed by an elite team of curious friends. There we were, myself and a Nintendo Switch-playing IT support technician, an ex-games journalist turned game developer, and a futile PS Vita 2 anticipator, all of whom were excited to get a taste of the as-yet-unreleased Steam Deck. Each one took it in hand, comparing the weight and ergonomics to their respective preferred platforms, and between the 'ooh's and 'ah's there was certainly a sense of camaraderie.
The Switch-liker noticed immediately the sweet UI sounds Valve has topped off the Steam Deck's menu systems with, while the PS Vita 2 hopeful was impressed by how light it was given the power under the hood. Though her main comment was: "It goes down well with a pint of cider, but I don't recommend it for sticky pub tables."
Which brings one point to the forefront: If it were a laptop I'd brought to the bar, there would be much more fear of spilling drinks over my precious hardware. Laptops, despite their name, generally should be used with a table—even the best gaming laptops can overheat if you muffle the fans. At least with a handheld I could keep it above the table, and away from sticky spillages.
There's always someone who makes a passing joke when you pull out a gaming laptop in a bar, too. Oddly, no comments came about the device we were all gawping at. The Steam Deck didn't seem to draw that much attention, and I feel like that wasn't just because the noisy pub atmosphere managed to drown out the high-pitched drone of the device's fan.
It's just a much more subtle form factor than a gaming laptop. People seem to be used to handheld gaming devices now, and it's almost a given that someone will pull one out at some point in the evening, be that in the form of a Switch, or their mobile phone. And as you're probably aware, it can make your company feel… left out.
Gaming on a Steam Deck at a social gathering turned out not to be the most conducive to a communal atmosphere.
I think my friends felt a bit ignored. Sure, you can pass the Steam Deck around playing Worms, or squeeze in together for a game of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, but it's not really a device that's meant for socialising. It's a social shield if anything, a little veiling machine that says: "I'm here, I showed up, but don't talk to me because I've been trying to defeat this boss for weeks."
Saying that, when you first introduce it to a group of like-minded nerds, the Steam Deck does manage to bring a sense of togetherness, at least in encouraging people with differing ideals and interests to come together to discuss something new and fascinating.
Of course, that spirit is sure to wear off once everyone gets used to the thing. And while the Steam Deck is quiet and subtle enough not to warrant public ridicule, it's definitely not something I'd take to social gatherings on the regular.
But you will likely find me rocking up alone to chill on the corner sofa at the local bar, keeping to myself, just as a way to get out of the house, though. For that, it's a pretty spectacular little machine.