Considering they’re floating bathtubs thousands of miles away from land, cruise ships have always been remarkably fun places. As far back as 1900, the Prinzessin Victoria Luise offered passengers everything from string quartet concerts to bands of local musicians who made their way aboard as the vessel docked in different ports.

As mass-market cruising grew over the following century – and ships themselves stretched to over 350m – operators developed more sophisticated ways to keep travellers entertained. If you’d booked a trip on the Song of Norway, the first cruise ship launched by Royal Caribbean in 1970, you could have tried your hands at golf and even clay-pigeon shooting.

In more recent years, of course, cruise companies have been able to lean more heavily on digital entertainment, not least when it comes to video games. Operators as varied as Carnival and Norwegian have installed the latest gaming systems aboard their ships, often in specialised rooms filled with special lights and comfy seats. This expansion is not particularly hard to understand. Requiring far less space, and presumably less insurance, than skeet shooting, game rooms can keep dozens of punters engrossed for hours on end – that the latest PlayStation costs as little as £480 surely can’t hurt either.

Yet, if video games are now crucial pieces in modern cruising’s entertainment puzzle, the industry is hardly resting there. With the technology itself racing ahead at a gallop, some operators are exploring what comes next, with virtual reality (VR) sucking up particular attention. Not that the future of seaborne gaming is simply a case of keeping an eye on the latest tech reviews.

On the contrary, with increasing worries about how young people navigate digital spaces, managers must work closely with guests (and their guardians) to understand exactly the kinds of games they’re looking to enjoy.

It goes without saying that, with blood and guts just an iPhone app away, cruise operators must work hard to keep things wholesome – and perhaps find ways to lure gamers away from their screens as well.

The names of the games

Seaborne gaming has been around for a while. As long ago as 2007, recalls Peter Grant, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) first partnered with Nintendo to introduce Wii consoles to its vessels. From there, explains the director of entertainment operations at the Miami-based giant, his team broadened its work with Nintendo to encompass the Wii U, a sophisticated gaming machine providing a range of cutting-edge experiences.

Norwegian is not the only operator to boast a long-running friendship with such a major console manufacturer. “We have PlayStation 5 (PS5) units on most of our ships and we’ll be offering PS5 fleetwide next year,” explains Melissa Mahaffey, the director of youth experience at Carnival Cruises. “We also feature Nintendo Switch as well.”

If you recognise the mania for gaming more widely, these investments soon make sense. According to work by PwC, the global gaming industry boomed during lockdown and could be worth $321bn by the middle of this decade. This frenzy is especially pronounced among younger people. A 2021 study from Entertainment Software Association (ESA) discovered 76% of American children play some kind of video game, a trend echoed by two-thirds of adults.

To put it another way, video games are rapidly becoming a universal form of entertainment that transcends chasms of age or wealth – a fact cruise operators have clearly appreciated.

As Grant puts it: “For guests tired of taking it easy, or those who are big kids at heart, be ready to experience all the unique on-board activities NCL has to offer.”

“Our kids, teens and families always want to play the latest games, so we make it a priority to keep up with the trends and update our gaming collection several times throughout the year.”
Melissa Mahaffey

Certainly, these universal principles are reflected in the spread of games operators are providing. A case in point is Norwegian’s Galaxy Pavilion, a space Grant calls a “playground” filled with flying, racing, and shooting lasers.

Carnival is similar in its approach too. “Gaming is very important to us because it’s very popular with kids, teens and families,” explains Mahaffey, adding that staff regularly put on youth gaming tournaments during voyages where families are encouraged to cheer contestants.

On-board gaming has become so popular, in fact, that one cruise ship even offers bespoke holidays to the most fanatical of enthusiasts.

The amount the gaming industry is predicted to be worth by 2050.

Known as ‘GACUCON’ (short for ‘Game Culture Con’) the self-proclaimed ‘game cruise’ offers four days of fun off the coast of California and Mexico. Among other things, passengers can sip cocktails while listening to famous game soundtracks, or else get snapped in costume by a professional photographer. When you recall tickets to this year’s GACUCON are going for as much as $6,287, you can imagine it’s an enticing offer

Digital dreams

Yet, if spectacles like GACUCON speak to the wild marketability of seaborne gaming, it’d be wrong to imply that operators can merely sit back and let their gaming guests snuggle into the hot seat.

That’s true enough, Grant explains, when understanding precisely what passengers are looking for. To put it another way, it’s all well and good to provide a bounty of genre-bending encounters, but what if you’re looking for something special?

“For guests tired of taking it easy, or those who are big kids at heart, be ready to experience all the unique on-board activities NCL has to offer.”
Peter Grant

To answer that question, Grant says Norwegian issues post-cruise surveys to departing guests, using the resulting data “strategically” to pick new options. Mahaffey makes a similar point. “Our kids, teens and families always want to play the latest games,” she says, “so we make it a priority to keep up with the trends and update our gaming collection several times throughout the year”.

In a similar vein, Grant is eager to espouse the rising benefits of VR. Examine what this technology can do in practice and the reasoning becomes obvious. Allowing users to physically lose themselves in a made-up world is the ideal antidote for passengers who crave more than the deep blue.

The percentage of American children that play some kind of video game.
Entertainment Software Association (ESA)

In Norwegian’s case, a standout example is a pair of goggles, transporting gamers into the cockpit of a Formula One car. Don another pair and you’ll leap into a Jeep, rushing through the wilds of Jurassic Park. No wonder Grant feels like he can claim that his team has “elevated” the old-school arcade to something substantially new and exciting.

Even at this point, however, operators can’t really take a hands-off approach. With parents understandably concerned about what their children are playing, staff must be sure that whatever games they offer are not too violent or scary.

At Carnival, Mahaffey answers this worry vigorously, noting that while the company has a “wide variety” of digital options, “we don’t offer games that are rated ‘mature’ or ‘R’ to ensure the games we feature on board are family friendly”. More than that, Carnival’s various youth programmes, catering to specific groups, are replete with age appropriate games.

Norwegian, for its part, takes a slightly different tack. “Ultimately, it’s up to parents and what they’re comfortable with their kids doing while on board,” stresses Grant. Apart from anything else, he suggests, a good way to keep younger fans on the leash is by supplying them with on-board credit. Once that runs out, it goes without saying, they won’t be able to play their favourite arcade – no matter how much they complain.

Choosing the blue pill

As exciting as the best video games can be, these attempts to limit the action surely make sense – and not only to reassure fretful mums and dads. Simply glance at the website of Carnival or Norwegian and it quickly becomes apparent how many entertainment options the average cruise ship now boasts. Clay-pigeon shooting may have been consigned to the health and safety dustbin of history, but younger cruisers have plenty to keep them occupied and offline.

“We have a plethora of other activities that appeal to all interests,” emphasises Mahaffey of Carnival. “We of course feature water slides on our ships, ropes courses, basketball courts, and on our two newest ships – rollercoasters.” Together with new cultural programmes, teaching teenage visitors about new cultures, as well as prom nights and other fancy-dress parties, there’s doubtless much to enjoy beyond VR.

Be that as it may, however, no one should imagine that the video gaming frenzy is disappearing. In December 2022, Celebrity Cruises announced it was dipping its prow into the metaverse by allowing passengers to virtually tour their ship before they set sail. Back on board steel-and-glass vessels, Grant says that his employer is sharpening its VR offering at speed, with its latest ship, Norwegian Prima, offering 13 VR rides and games.

More to the point, the executive is certain that the firm will always keep up with what’s next. “We’ve already seen impressive development in this space over the last decade,” he says. “With a restless desire for innovation, NCL is always looking for ways to elevate our offering for guests.”

Given just how popular games look set to become over the next few decades, that’s probably wise.