The Metaverse: A brave, new (virtual) world

If we accept the premise that on the Internet “if you’re not paying, you’re the product”, in the Metaverse you will become a walking — talking billboard.

The Metaverse, art by the author of this post under license by PicMonkey.

Intro: Video games now

Amongst the changes that “lockdowns” and “new normality” have brought, there is a revalorization of digital interactions as valuable and meaningful. Ironically, what was once regarded as isolationist or a poor substitute for “real life” (an expression used as an interchangeable semantic proxy for “in-person”) experiences, has become the glue that holds the social fabric together.

Connecting in and through digital spaces has been a staple of 2020: from work or formal education moving to online alternatives, to recreational uses of video platforms. In these virtual spaces, human ingenuity has found new testing grounds to deal with the challenges presented by the pandemic. It can be a thoughtful provocation to say that since lockdowns started, we might have been living in a proto-version of the Metaverse.

The silver lining is an accelerated digital transformation, even for those areas traditionally reluctant to innovate or that deemed remoteness incompatible with organizational culture (like small businesses adopting digital payments as opposed to inveterate cash-only business practices, or governmental bureaucracies offering online alternatives to otherwise mandatory in-person procedures).

Amidst this burgeoning digital life, video games have experienced an influx of new players, growing revenue, and newfound mainstream respect. One year after designating video game addiction as a mental health disorder, the OMS has taken a more nuanced position, acknowledging their positive value for socialization.

Beyond their collective value, in times of uncertainty video games constitute a space to regain some sense of control and security, as well as a place to exercise empathy. By design, challenges in gaming are presented to the player with the implicit promise that they can be solved with the tools provided beforehand, and the skills gained along the way. Good game design will equip players with prerequisite skills and knowledge to arrive at that stage with a chance of success, and never confront them with a challenge that is impossible to win. With the unspoken pact that there is always -at least- one guaranteed possibility of triumph, losing just becomes a matter of trying but not a failure. With the reassurance of success looming ahead, losing becomes just another moving part of the game, a rehearsal in the path to winning.

Considering games as a narrative medium that separates itself from others by its interactivity, gaming presents unprecedented potential as a rehearsal space for empathy. When we play, we are able to try a different skin and participate in a story from a privileged insider perspective that no other medium can match.

Video games are consumed not only by playing but also by communal activities like engaging in watching others play. Streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube are popular amongst youth due to the added value of interpersonal interaction, a sense of belonging, and community building.

The Metaverse, defined as an encompassing, persistent, virtual world, can be seen as the newest iteration of the Internet, both an evolutionary step and a fusion of social networks and online gaming. As gaming becomes more ubiquitous and social media platforms resort to gamification mechanics to promote interaction between users, the frontiers between these two worlds tend to blur: platforms become games and games take the place of social media spaces. Twitch, which started as a platform to watch other people play games, has evolved into a community-building space where games are also played with the audience, by using overlays and gamified mechanics of interaction.

Fortnite has been a pioneer in this space, not only with its “Party Royale” mode and providing concerts and movie screenings (separated from the core gameplay but organically integrated as a whole) but also by creating a gaming experience that incentivizes socialization. Gaming platforms have become the new town square, where bonds, friendships, and rivalries are forged over voice chat.

Besides social aspects of play, in a receding economy for industries related to in-person activities (affected by the pandemic through overstressed supply chains and reduced demand), the video game industry and its ecosystem have been one of the few to increment growth. With changes in consumer behavior driven by stay-at-home routines, it is no surprise that fashion, movies, and other related domains are moving into digital spaces and seeking to create digital doppelgangers of the goods and services they provide in the tangible world. Marketing and advertising are increasingly interested in the Metaverse, as the next frontier for expanding their brand’s business and targeting prospective new audiences.

The recent explosion of the NFTs market is a closely related phenomenon, and its rise is partly attributable to their ability to create artificial scarcity. Through maiming their essentially infinitely replicable with near-zero marginal cost attribute, NFTs provide to digital goods the non-fungibility characteristic of analog goods. Decentralized blockchain applications and NFT’s based business models allow the creation of secondary markets for digital goods, providing a foundational economic backbone for the Metaverse.

Paired with advancements in VR/XR and AR technology, investment and funding attracting new players, all of these factors converge into creating a critical juncture for the pursuit of the Metaverse.

“Metaverse/s” and virtual worlds

The term Metaverse is attributed to Neal Stephenson and his book Snow Crash, a novel about a protagonist (actually, a Hiro Protagonist) interacting in a persistent, immersive, shared, virtual world.

“Neal Stephenson — Snow Crash” by RA.AZ is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The concept, which both echoes and modifies the idea of “cyberspace,” a term popularized by the 1984 William Gibson novel “Neuromancer,” has been revisited in other sci-fi works like Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Both movie and book portray OASIS (which stands for Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), as a massively multiplayer online simulation accessible via haptic devices, that hosts entertainment, commercial and educative hubs.

People will participate in these spaces through a digital representation of themselves, as avatars or skins, that could assume any possible shape or form. Restrictions will probably come from the terms of service, community standards or policies, intellectual property infringements, or licensing requirements.

The Metaverse is different from virtual worlds in the sense that it aspires to contain all or several of these virtual worlds, or at least, to create interoperable gateways to connect them, functioning as an all-encompassing, unified portal and hub. That poses an interesting tension between the pretended decentralization where blockchain advocates see an intersection with the Metaverse, against its own monopolistic proposition. One friction that only can be solved by creating a pipeline of true interoperability, both technical and legal, that enables the flow and uniform treatment of data (by uniform data protection laws) and content (likewise, for intellectual property regulations).

The architecture of the Metaverse can be fragmented into several attributes that should be checked by those aspiring candidates:

  • ubiquity: the Metaverse will need to encompass different aspects of human experience, from leisure to education, finances, political expression, etc. Adult clubs have a prominent role in Second Life.
  • synchronicity; with events happening in real-time or a shared time-scale
  • interconnection: allowing the transition between several virtual worlds (relevant questions here will be about the portability of digital goods from one world to another, and if they will remain functional)
  • persistent, implying that events will take place at its pace no matter whether the person remains or not logged; and that they can`t probably be reset or modified (as in loading a saved game)
  • virtual/ immersive; being a digital representation that sets the Metaverse apart from AR interfaces that add layers of extended meanings and content to the physical world.
  • collective and shared; as in virtual worlds populated by other beings ( question remains if human, artificial, or both)

Necessarily, it should provide a self-representation construct (in the form of skins, avatars, or any sort of digital manifestation able to interact within the virtual world), and arguably, building tools that enable creative outlets for the expansion of these worlds through a creator-centric approach.

Questions remain on how those spaces will be adjudicated and governed. The answers to that will shape further attributes, such as: openness, decentralization, portability, artificial scarcity, and interoperability (allowing to interface with other applications, not just to create with the building tools provided as in user-generated content).

The core idea behind the Metaverse proposition is to create an immersive digital place that duplicates reality without physical constraints. Nevertheless, that doesn’t necessarily imply that real-world rules don’t apply in the Metaverse. Paraphrasing an iconic Morpheus quote from The Matrix, “some rules can be bent, others can be broken”, and even when the laws of physics may not apply, that most certainly won’t be the case of intellectual property rules and other regulatory frameworks. Governance challenges arise in similar ways to those already existing around the Internet, only to be enhanced by the invasive and intimate nature of this immersive technology with sensors and devices connected close to the body and extracting biometric sensitive data, -like eye-tracking devices-, that is ripe for abuse. Digital wellbeing and the effects of virtual embodiment representations should be carefully considered.

The Matrix, one of the cornerstones of simulation narratives.

Adding to that, the fact that it will be a privatized playground, with the potential to construct inferences by statistical mining; and the use of generative artificial intelligence paired with biometric data raises high privacy and self-determination concerns, in an ecosystem that could further lead to reinforcing tech- solipsism tendencies.

Even with strong contenders like Minecraft, Roblox, or Fortnite, that already have a huge player base and infrastructure to become aspiring Metaverses, the fact remains that there is still none that can claim the title. In the meanwhile, digital rights communities, academics, and policymakers should remain vigilant, and engage in this brave, new, virtual world.

(Note: This article is an excerpt of a forthcoming paper on the Metaverse and its governance).

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