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The metaverse, explained

While boardrooms chase a VR internet no one asked for, video game metaverses are all around us

Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon

What is the metaverse?

Good question. “Metaverse” is currently a major buzzword in the worlds of tech, business, and finance, and like all buzzwords its definition is fuzzy, contested, and shaped by the ambitions of the people using it.

Here’s one thing we can say for sure: The term was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash to describe a virtual world in wide use in his imagined future, a 21st-century dystopia. In Snow Crash, the metaverse is a virtual-reality world depicted as a planet-encircling market where virtual real estate can be bought and sold, and where VR goggle-wearing users inhabit 3D avatars whose form they have freedom to choose.

The paperback cover of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash Bruce Jensen/Bantam Books

These three elements — a VR interface, digital ownership, and avatars — still feature prominently in current conceptions of the metaverse. But none of them is actually essential to the idea. In the broadest terms, the metaverse is understood as a graphically rich virtual space, with some degree of verisimilitude, where people can work, play, shop, socialize — in short, do the things humans like to do together in real life (or, perhaps more to the point, on the internet). Metaverse proponents often focus on the concept of “presence” as a defining factor: feeling like you’re really there, and feeling like other people are really there with you, too.

This version of the metaverse arguably already exists in the form of video games. But there’s another definition of the metaverse that goes beyond the virtual worlds we know. This definition doesn’t actually describe the metaverse at all, but does explain why everyone thinks it’s so important. This definition isn’t about a vision for the future or a new technology. Rather, it looks to the past and to the now commonplace technologies of the internet and smartphones, and assumes that it will be necessary to invent the metaverse to replace them.

The influential venture capitalist Matthew Ball, who has written extensively about the metaverse, describes it as “a sort of successor state to the mobile internet.” (Mark Zuckerberg, who last year gave his company Facebook the name Meta and said the metaverse would be its focus, has used an almost identical phrase; clearly, Ball’s essays are hugely influential on Silicon Valley thinking.) Remember when smartphones revolutionized tech, the economy, and society itself? The metaverse is expected to be an equivalent watershed, and lots of businesses want to get ahead of that.

There are many things to challenge in Ball’s vision, but the biggest is his proposition that the metaverse will be a single network as open, interconnected, and interoperable as the internet is now. That’s a very big ask. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Is the metaverse new?

In brief: lol no. We’ve already established that the term has been around for 30 years, and not just in fictional form. It’s formed a part of corporate visions of the future for quite some time. During the first VR boom of the ’90s, U.K. grocery chain Sainsbury’s put together a VR shopping demo that’s eerily similar to a video that Walmart made in 2017.

Beyond marketing puff-pieces and proof-of-concept demos, metaverse-like virtual worlds have actually existed for almost as long as their fictional counterparts. Hype pieces about people getting married in the metaverse will elicit a sigh of recognition from anyone who has followed online gaming for the past few decades. One of the most famous virtual worlds, and perhaps the closest to the metaverse ideal, is Second Life, an “online multimedia platform” which launched in 2003.

Avatars dance in a bar in Second Life
Second Life.
Image: Linden Labs

Second Life mostly resembles an early-’00s massively multiplayer online role-playing game like World of Warcraft, only with all the game taken out: the combat, the quests, the stories, the rewards. It fulfills many of the roles imagined for the metaverse of the future, and has done so since its launch. Users are embodied in avatars and hang out with each other in virtual spaces. They enjoy virtual versions of real-world experiences, from business meetings to clubbing. Users can create their own content and services and trade with one another. There’s a virtual economy with its own currency, which can be exchanged with real-world currency. Second Life is almost a textbook metaverse, to the extent that such a thing exists.

Avatars meet in the central lounge of PlayStation Home.
PlayStation Home.
Image: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Another notable but oft-forgotten example of an early metaverse was PlayStation Home. Sony’s ill-fated virtual social hub for PlayStation 3 launched in 2008 and closed in 2015, to the sorrow of its tiny community. It didn’t go anywhere and seemed, to a casual user, quite pointless, but it’s an interesting example of what a highly corporatized metaverse — as opposed to the anarchic, community-driven Second Life — might look like. It featured a lot of advertising and one-way purchasing opportunities, and not a great deal else to do; it suffered from sitting right next to much richer and more entertaining virtual worlds, the games themselves, in your PS3 interface. But the clean, blandly stylized, utopian futurism of its art style clearly prefigures Zuckerberg’s recent metaverse demo. This is what companies think our dreams look like.

The reality, of course, is probably closer to the messy, sometimes grubby Second Life. Give humans a chance to build a world without restrictions, and they’ll either come up with a branding opportunity or a fetish dungeon. That should serve as either a warning for the future architects of the metaverse, or an opportunity.

Why is everyone suddenly talking about the metaverse?

There are a few factors that have catapulted it to the forefront of the tech industry’s thinking in the past few years. One is that a couple of technologies closely associated with visions of the metaverse have matured. Virtual reality, which was taking its first faltering steps in the ’90s as Stephenson wrote Snow Crash, is now, well, a reality. Commercially available headsets of decent quality exist, including standalone wireless devices like the Quest. Facebook’s purchase of Oculus in 2014 was an early indication of where Zuckerberg thought his business might be headed.

Another is the blockchain, the barely comprehensible and energy-hungry technology that has made cryptocurrencies and NFTs possible. NFTs, which have become an obsession for crypto enthusiasts, snake-oil salesmen, suggestible executives, and (bizarrely) some parts of the art world over the last year or so, could enable the ownership of virtual items and real estate within the metaverse.

Mark Zuckerberg stands in a virtual living room
Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg introduces his concept of the metaverse.
Image: Meta

It should be noted that it is possible to “own” and even trade virtual items in plenty of games and virtual spaces, Second Life included, without using the blockchain — but that ownership is pretty flimsy and usually subject to a license agreement. NFTs offer different (but similarly flimsy) methodologies of proving ownership. Regardless, the uniqueness and supposed portability of NFTs has metaverse proponents excited.

Just as significant a factor in the metaverse trend is the coronavirus pandemic, which has radically altered lifestyles across the planet. With people spending so long in Zoom meetings for work, and with soaring use of video games as people seek to enter more colorful and exciting environments without leaving the comfort and safety of their homes, it’s natural for tech companies to look for ways to capitalize on the situation by bridging these two needs.

Late in 2021, Facebook’s rebranding and its metaverse-focused mission statement sealed the deal. Since then, the term has cropped up with increasing ubiquity — in the business world, at least. The world of government and politics may take a while to catch up as it focuses on how to contain the power of Big Tech in the here and now, as well as how to mitigate the deleterious effects of social media on actual society — which continues to be a thing. Boring!

Isn’t the metaverse just… video games?

Maybe! You know who thinks so? Microsoft. On buying Activision Blizzard for almost 70 billion dollars, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella commented: “When we think about our vision for what a metaverse can be, we believe there won’t be a single, centralized metaverse and there shouldn’t be. We need to support many metaverse platforms … in gaming, we see the metaverse as a collection of communities and individual identities anchored in strong content franchises, accessible on every device.”

A pixel art hotel surrounded by chatting avatars
Habbo, another virtual social space, has been going since 2000.
Image: Sulake Oy

It’s possible Nadella was just throwing shareholders the buzzword of the day in the hope it would help get them behind such an enormous acquisition. Nevertheless, he was outlining a vision that was strikingly different from the all-encompassing VR internet put forward by Ball and Zuckerberg. In his version, metaverses are plural, and they’re all around us already. They are persistent communities formed around virtual places where people want to be — like World of Warcraft, or Call of Duty: Warzone.

There’s consistency in Microsoft’s thinking here. In 2014, around the same time Facebook acquired Oculus, Microsoft bought Mojang and its enormously popular game Minecraft. Minecraft, with its social, creative, and deeply customizable gameplay, is often cited as a metaverse-adjacent game, and it’s notable that Microsoft has not tried to strongarm it into exclusivity on its own platforms; it views Minecraft as a valuable platform in its own right.

MMOs like WoW share an obvious kinship with metaverses in form, if not function. But there are closer analogues to be found in two post-Minecraft games that are hugely popular with kids. In both Roblox and Fortnite, your avatar, your presence, your customization choices, and your social connections are almost more important than the game itself — or the games, plural, in Roblox’s case.

Roblox is an incredibly free-form environment almost on par with Second Life, where players author their own games and chase status and dreams of real-world success — and where brands create advergames as a way to reach the elusive tween demographic. Fortnite, meanwhile, has staged colossal in-game cultural events, like the 2020 Travis Scott concert that drew over 27 million participants. To many observers, including Ball, these events represent the closest we’ve come to a true metaverse experience.

Should I resign myself to living in the metaverse?

Ariana Grande surrounded by dancing avatars in Fortnite
Pop star Ariana Grande appeared in Fortnite’s Rift Tour event.
Image: Epic Games

Not just yet. Despite the maturity of the idea and the current obsession with it in boardrooms, the technology still needs a lot of work — especially if it really is to become “the next internet” envisioned by Ball and Zuckerberg. And despite the pandemic that has confined so many of us to our houses, a strong consumer desire for a metaverse experience that isn’t just a video game has yet to be proven.

The biggest obstacle to Ball and Zuckerberg’s metaverse becoming a reality is interoperability. You might want to call it standardization; it’s the idea that you will be able to take your avatar and digital possessions with you from one app, or game, or virtual world to the next. (Ball imagines bringing a unique Counter-Strike gun skin with you into Fortnite, for example.) For the metaverse to become the next stage of evolution of the internet, interoperability is vital, but the hurdles are so huge as to seem insurmountable. There are technical challenges: how to bring an asset from one graphics engine to another, and render it faithfully across a bewildering range of hardware configurations, for one. There are legal and commercial challenges, too: circumventing intellectual property rights and persuading countless businesses to agree not to wall off their gardens. It’s a lot, lot harder than agreeing on a standard for hypertext links, for example.

Beyond that, people have to be persuaded that this is something they want. The technology through which we access these worlds needs to be at least as comfortable and convenient to use as a smartphone, and as portable, or it will seem like a backward step from the mobile internet it’s supposed to be replacing. And while the science-fiction appeal of such a virtual world might seem obvious on the surface, you have to question how deep the desire to spend time there really goes. In fiction from Snow Crash to The Matrix and Ready Player One, metaverses are usually envisioned as an escape — willing or not — from dystopian realities that are too awful to bear. I dare hope that we’re not quite there yet.

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