I’ve seen the metaverse – and I don’t want it | Games
I spent much of my life in virtual worlds. I’ve been playing video games since I was six; as a millennial, I’ve lived online since I was a teenager; and I’ve been reporting on games and gaming culture for 16 years. I went to Iceland for an annual gathering of players from EVE Online, an online spaceship game whose virtual politics, friendships, and rivalries are as real as anything outside of its digital universe. I’ve seen companies make millions and then billions selling virtual clothing and items to players who want to decorate themselves virtually. I’ve met people who have met in digital worlds and married in the real world, who have formed some of their most meaningful relationships and had meaningful life experiences in, well… people the used to call cyberspace, but the current buzzword is “metaverse”.
Ask 50 people what the metaverse means, right now, and you’ll get 50 different answers. If a metaverse is where the real and virtual worlds collide, then Instagram is a metaverse: you create an avatar, organize your image, and use it to interact with other people. What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that it’s worth the money. Epic Games and the recently rebranded Facebook are investing billions a year in this idea. When Microsoft bought video game maker Activision for $70 billion last week, it was described as “a gamble on the metaverse.”
The tech world seems to be leaning towards some sort of early 2000s conception of wearing a VR headset and haptic suit and driving a flying car to your perfect fantasy mansion in a calming, sanitized alternate reality, where you can have whatever you want as long as you can afford it. Watch Mark Zuckerberg’s now infamous presentation on the future of his company, with its bland cartoonish avatars and empty, pleasant environments. It is the future as envisioned by someone with little imagination.
I do not deny that some people want this vision. Ready Player One was a resounding success. But the metaverse as envisioned by the people currently investing in it — by tech billionaires like Zuckerberg and Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, by techbro peddlers selling startlingly ugly generative art NFTs and using words like “cryptoverse” – can only be described as spiritually bereft. This is of no interest to me.
Virtual worlds can be incredibly liberating. The promise of cyberspace, since its inception, has been that it makes us all equal, allowing us to be judged not by our physical appearance or our limitations, but by what’s inside our heads, how we want to be seen. The dream is of a virtual place where the hierarchies and boundaries of the real world disappear, where the nerdy dweeb can be the hero, where the poor and bored can step away from their reality and live somewhere more exciting, more rewarding.
However, anyone who is marginalized in the real world knows that is not how things work. Virtual worlds are not inherently better than the real world. Exploitation of workers exists in them – look at World of Warcraft, in which Venezuelans farm currency to sell to first-world players, or Roblox, in which young game developers put in long hours on unregulated projects for little reward. Misogyny and homophobia also exist in them – ask anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of sounding feminine on voice chat while playing a multiplayer shooter, or being gender non-conforming on Twitch. As for racism, well – it is alive and well, and seemingly emboldened, in the digital world.
The idea that a metaverse will magically solve any of these problems is a complete fantasy. All they really do is reflect the people who make them and spend time in them. Sadly, nothing I’ve experienced in a virtual world makes me feel good about the idea of the metaverse – because it’s built by people for whom real-world issues are mostly invisible. Unless companies go to great lengths to dismantle biases and unconscious biases, they are mindlessly reproduced in everything they create. No one has yet found a way to effectively moderate anywhere online to protect it from abuse, toxicity, and manipulation by bad actors. Given what happened with Facebook, do you trust Meta with this responsibility? Do you trust Microsoft for this?
And what will the metaverse look like? Who’s deciding ? Apart from the sanitized aesthetic of the Zuckerverse (and the old eve of the Second Life virtual world), the main art references we have right now are either the Fortnite or Roblox glow or the neon anime nightmare limitless that is VRChat. Then there are the seemingly endless series of tasteless NFT art, many of which tie into their own promised metaverses, enticing their buyers with the promise of community. Every time I see a new set of images (well, links to images) put up for sale, I’m like, really? ANOTHER set of rad skulls? It’s all so powerfully adolescent, and yet, apparently, they continually sell out. these are the people currently determining what the future might look like. He is depressing.
I’d feel better about the idea of the metaverse if it wasn’t currently dominated by corporations and disaster capitalists trying to find a way to make more money as real-world resources dwindle. The metaverse as envisioned by these people, by the tech giants, is not a promising new frontier for humanity. It’s another place to spend money on things, except in this place the empty promise that buying things will make you happy is left even more exposed by the fact that the things in question don’t physically exist. .
As far as I can tell, the idea is to take the principle of artificial scarcity to an absurd extreme – to make you want things you absolutely don’t need. The problem is not that I think it won’t work. The problem is that I think it will. The current NFT Gold Rush proves that people will pay tens of thousands of dollars for links to computer generated jpegs of monkeys, and honestly, it erodes my faith in humanity. What gaping loophole do we live with that makes us feel the need to spend big bucks on tokens that prove ownership of a procedurally generated image, just to feel like we’re part of something? All of this is happening, of course, as the Earth continues to warm, and at enormous environmental cost. I can’t help but wonder if these giant corporations are so determined to sell us and the markets the idea of a virtual future in order to distract us all from what they are doing for the real thing.
I have seen what virtual worlds can do for people. I’ve spent my entire adult life reporting on them, what people do in them, and what meaning they find in them. So the fact that I’m now the one standing here to say that we I do not want that, feels significant. Meta has patented technology that could track what you look at and how your body moves in virtual reality in order to target ads to you. Is this the future of video games and all the other virtual places where we spend time – having our attention continuously tracked and monetized, even more than it is in real life?
The virtual worlds of games and the early days of the Internet were once an escape from the inequalities and injustices of the real world. To see the tendrils of big tech and social media spreading to the places that have been a haven for me and millions of others is disturbing. I don’t trust these people for the future. The more I hear about the metaverse, the less I want to do.