I’ve spent a significant amount of time in virtual worlds throughout my life. In my 16 years as a gaming journalist, I’ve covered games and gaming culture from the perspective of a six-year-old and a millennial. A yearly gathering of EVE Online players, whose virtual politics, friendships, and rivalries are as real as anything outside the game’s digital universe, brought me to Iceland. Players who want to dress up their virtual selves can spend millions, if not billions, of dollars on virtual clothing and accessories sold by companies. Some of the most significant relationships and life experiences of my life have come from people who met in virtual worlds and married in the real world. “The metaverse” has recently replaced the term “cyberspace” as the preferred moniker.
16 Years as a Gaming Journalist
You’ll get 50 different interpretations of what the metaverse means right now if you ask 50 different people. Instagram is a metaverse in the sense that it allows you to create an avatar, curate your image, and interact with others using that avatar. Most people seem to agree that it is a worthwhile investment. A new Facebook and Epic Games are spending billions of dollars a year on this concept. Activision’s $70bn acquisition by Microsoft was dubbed “a bet on the metaverse” when it was announced last week.
Virtual reality headsets and haptic suits with flying cars to your perfect pretend mansion in an alternate reality where you can have anything you want as long as you can pay for them seem to be trending in the tech world’s early 2000s conception. Take a look at Mark Zuckerberg’s now-infamous presentation about the future of his company, which features bland cartoonish avatars and eerily empty environments. It’s the future as imagined by a person with a limited capacity for creativity.
There are those who would like to see this vision realised. The movie Ready Player One was a massive success. It’s hard to imagine a more spiritually devoid vision of the metaverse than that of the people who are currently investing in it: tech billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, as well as techbro hucksters peddling hideously ugly generative-art NFTs and using terms like “cryptoverse.” I’m not interested in it.
Virtual worlds have the potential to be extremely liberating. Since its inception, the promise of cyberspace has been that it would make us all equal, allowing us to be judged not by our physical appearance or limitations, but rather by what is inside our heads, by how we want to be seen. Dreams of a world where the nerdy dweeb can be the hero, where the impoverished and bored can escape their reality and live somewhere more exciting, more rewarding are the basis of this article.
However, anyone who has experienced marginalisation in the real world knows that things don’t work that way. Virtual worlds are not superior to the real world in any way. The exploitation of workers is prevalent in them, such as in World of Warcraft, where Venezuelans farm currency for sale to first-world players, or in Roblox, where young game developers put in long hours on unregulated projects for little reward. Ask anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of sounding female on voice chat while playing a multiplayer shooter, or being non-gender-conforming on Twitch, about the prevalence of misogyny and homophobia in them. Racism, on the other hand, is very much alive and well in the digital world, where it appears to be emboldened.
The metaverse that one nerd in the 1980s imagined would be cool is depressingly close to what’s happening now, as Ready Player One depicts.
There is absolutely no chance that a metaverse will magically solve any of these issues. They are nothing more than a reflection of the people who create and spend time in them. Unfortunately, I’ve had nothing positive to say about the metaverse because it’s being built by people who aren’t aware of the problems in the real world. Prejudices and unconscious biases are re-created in everything a company produces unless the company makes a concerted effort to dismantle them. Nobody has yet found a way to effectively moderate any online environment to keep it free from abuse and toxicity and manipulation by bad actors. Do you have faith in Meta after what happened with Facebook?
Do you have faith in Microsoft’s ability to handle it?
As evidenced by the NFT gold rush, people are willing to pay thousands of dollars for computer-generated jpegs of monkeys. This is eroding my faith in humanity.
What about the metaverse itself? Who has the final say? When it comes to visual inspiration, we’re limited to the gaudiness of Fortnite, Roblox, and VRChat, as well as Second Life’s sanitised aesthetic. Many of the NFT artworks are tied to their own promised metaverses, enticing buyers with the promise of a sense of belonging. The first thing I think is, “Really?” when I see a new set of images (or at least links to images) for sale. Do we really need to see yet another collection of rad skulls?! Everything about it screams adolescence, yet they seem to be selling out time and time again. These are the people who have the power to shape the future. It’s gloomy out there.
In an ideal world, the metaverse wouldn’t be dominated by corporations and disaster capitalists scrambling to make more money as the resources of the real world deplete. According to the tech giants, the metaverse does not represent a bright new horizon for mankind. Another place to spend money on things, but the empty promise that buying things will make you happy is even more exposed by the fact that things in question do not exist.
This NFT is one of a number of planned’metaverses’ linked to the More Than Gamers NFT.
How many of them will actually come to fruition?
From what I’ve gathered, the goal here is to take the concept of artificial scarcity and apply it in an absurdist manner in order to compel people to desire things they don’t actually require. This isn’t a problem because I don’t believe it will work. It’s just that I’m so sure it will happen. People are willing to pay thousands of dollars for links to monkey images generated by a computer generated by a computer, and honestly it is eroding my faith in humanity because of this current NFT gold rush. When we buy tokens that prove ownership of an image generated by a computer program, we feel like we’re part of something greater than ourselves. At a time when the Earth continues to heat up, this is all taking place simultaneously. These massive corporations may be selling us on virtual futures in order to divert our attention away from what they’re doing to our real one.
It has been my experience that virtual worlds can have a positive impact on people. The things people do in them and the significance they discover there have occupied most of my adult reporting career. To be standing here and saying, “We do not want this,” is a significant moment for me. With Meta’s patent-pending technology, advertisers will be able to see what you’re looking at and how you’re moving in virtual reality environments. To have our attention constantly tracked and monetised, even more so than in real life, is that the future of video games and all the other virtual places where we spend time.
There were times when games and the Internet offered a safe haven from the injustices and inequalities that existed in the real world. It’s alarming to see the social media and big tech tentacles encroaching on the places where millions of people, including myself, have sought refuge. I’m not sure I can put my faith in these individuals with regard to the future. More and more, the metaverse makes me desirous of doing nothing.