The word of the year, according to Oxford’s annual (and now semi-democratic) designation, is…”goblin fashion”. Seriously?
What happened to the “metaverse”, the distant second in “goblin mode” with less than a tenth of the votes? As late as August, I could have sworn we would never hear the end of the metaverse, the buzzword encapsulating the potential for a deeply embodied internet with unprecedented connectivity and interoperability; essentially, virtual reality. We’ve come a long way since Snowfall, and now the metaverse is, supposedly, the very near-term future of the internet. The metaverse’s apparent business potential was so powerful that it compelled Mark Zuckerberg to rename Facebook (parent company), if not also Facebook (website), to Meta, thereby reimagining his social media business as “a metaverse company” in 2022. But this year, rather than rapidly redefining the internet, the metaverse has stalled, and user numbers on formative platforms have struggled to number in the tens of thousands, let alone millions.
Zuckerberg’s Metaverse and its flagship multiplayer game (sorry, “the social experiment”), Horizon Worlds, would have undergone a dismal development cycle, involving thousands of employees and billions of dollars. The somber expositions and lukewarm reviews suggest a longer, more difficult road to full virtual immersion. Last month, Meta laid off more than 11,000 employees, or about 13% of the company’s workforce. Now, Meta is bracing for an industry-wide recession or at least an industry-wide slowdown among tech companies, which are cutting benefits, suspending hiring, and cutting teams. Yet Meta continues to double down on the Metaverse – in October the company told investors to brace for bigger investments in technology and bigger operating losses in the near term – as the company’s best bet. for growth towards Web 3.0. In the meantime, the tech discourse seems to have evolved in recent months; instead of the metaverse, generative AI, like ChatGPT, is all the rage with its conversational responses turned into viral content and potential for division.
It’s been a dark year for tech, despite the industry’s best efforts to combat the general trend of tech pessimism in the press. There’s the metaverse, so far defined by false starts. There is cryptocurrency, currently in financial crisis. There’s social media, which is taking the longest hit of all on a variety of platforms: product stagnation on Facebook and Instagram; geopolitical angst and psychological concerns regarding TikTok; stunt management and culture war crusade on Twitter. The metaverse remains the most colorful promise. The metaverse is still cool. The metaverse is still intact, unlike crypto, and still very largely undefined. But there’s a lesson for the metaverse, I guess, in video games – not the lesson typically learned to illustrate the metaverse on a small scale and build trust in the metaverse at large.
Metaverse proponents often invoke online lobbies for modern multiplayer games. These are bustling places filled with brave avatars, representing players from all over the world, lining up in exuberant virtual spaces. These are the most spectacular escape sites in modern life. “It’s no wonder, then, that online universes like Fortnite and Roblox currently attract nearly 400 million users,” writes Thomas Stackpole in the harvard business review, “and others like Decentraland and the Sandbox are growing rapidly.” It somewhat overestimates the growth of the latter; Sandbox self-reports no more than 10,000 active users at its daily peak, and that’s compared to the nearly 60 million daily active users playing Roblox in recent months.
More importantly, I would say it overstates the comparison. You spend 10 minutes in Decentraland, a ‘virtual destination for digital assets’, crawlable in your browser, and discover there’s nothing quite like it Fortnite and only a bit like the popular virtual sandbox Zoomer Roblox. Decentraland is, in its current state, more like Gesture 52, one of those janky old prototypical game compilations for the original Nintendo. This is, of course, speculative technology, and these platforms may well thrive in due course, but even then, with modest success, the Metaverse could and perhaps should remain a novelty.
In recent years, the video game industry has finally found some critical and commercial success in virtual reality. This was after decades of fads and flops. Major developers have launched decently popular hardware and a handful of noteworthy titles (Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, Half-Life: Alyx). But even with these breakthroughs, virtual reality remains a speculative niche – an expensive hobby within the already expensive hobby that is video games in general. There’s still no clear path to a sustainable mainstream market for affordable VR headsets and successful VR franchises. Video game culture, for all its obsession with “immersion,” does not desperately need virtual reality. Culture is content with the classic immersion found in open multiplayer grinds, such as MultiVersusand intensive solo experiences, such as elderberry ring. Virtual reality is now succeeding although virtual reality is no longer the inevitable pinnacle of video game development.
The metaverse isn’t just about users embodying avatars and goofing around in virtual landscapes. Its proponents – from Mark Zuckerberg to Neal Stephenson – describe a brave new economic realm, replacing the unsavory compromises (with advertisers, mostly) of the old Web with the promise of user autonomy, cryptocurrency rewards and of total immersion. The watchword is not “metaverse” but rather “immersion”. But there is always a crucial question at the heart of this promise: Do we want this? Better yet: do we need it? Doesn’t the malaise that still surrounds social networks suggest the opposite? It’s tempting to dismiss so many of the ominous rumbles about the social costs and psychological effects of social media as baseless techno pessimism on the part of disgruntled liberals (or as goofy moral panics about China’s communists brainwashing our tweens with viral dances or gender memes or whatever). But social media has actually annexed our attention span and blocked us, every moment of our lives, on the internet. In Stackpole’s otherwise upbeat assessment of the Metaverse, he acknowledges this when he wearily asks, “Do I want to spend even more of my life online?” It’s hard to imagine that caring even more obsessively about our personas online will somehow make us more empowered, more fulfilled, and more free.
Video games and social media already encourage the kind of mental over-investment that makes the more explicit and embodied immersion of the Metaverse seem whimsical and redundant. The immersive internet is already here, in Web 2.0. How far further can we go and how many more phases can we go through? how do you improve Fortnite? By removing the guns and turning it all into a crypto mixer for busy professionals? Are we sure?