The Metaverse is Weird, and You Will Still Care

Author: Rohan Godara, Graphics: Nina Tagliabue

The BRB Bottomline

The metaverse will create virtual lives for everyone for a new era in social and digital media. But how much will people care about virtual worlds? More than you’d expect.

The metaverse is all over the news, companies like Facebook and Microsoft are investing heavily to capitalize on it, fashion and gaming companies are adapting future brand strategies to cater to it, and NFTs, which are supposed to play a big role in it, are more lucrative than ever. But even though the metaverse will not be all pervasive for years to come, these companies are banking heavily on us to care when it does arrive, and perhaps for good reason.

The Universe Beyond

The Metaverse

The metaverse is a vision of seamless integration of technologies that we’re all familiar with into our lives. Imagine waking up in the morning to see the news  in the corner of your vision, your to-do list in your mirror, the weather when you look up at the sky, and your map directions on the street as you move along it. You see holograms of your coworkers at an empty desk, with powerpoints floating in the air, and 3D models appearing out of the table. You walk by a street to see a digital art piece superimposed on the wall like virtual graffiti. When you want to meet up with friends for a game of tennis or a concert, you put on a headset and find yourself at a court, or in their home, or even a digital world from a video game that you can freely explore as your own avatar. 

Meta means beyond, and a metaverse refers to this science-fiction-esque reality existing alongside our own. The metaverse will be to virtual worlds what the internet is to websites, and just as the internet has become essential to modern survival, so too could the metaverse, where our virtual lives will be just as important as our real ones due to its integration into our society, as is evident by the apparent necessity of social media and video conferencing platforms in today’s world. Facebook recently rebranded to Meta, perhaps partly to start anew amidst its controversies of data violation, but they’ve always had an undeniable interest in the blending of the real and virtual world as hinted by their acquisition of Oculus, pioneer in VR headsets, and Within, famous for their VR fitness app, amongst other acquired gaming companies. And they’re serious about it. In October, 2021, they released a nearly one and a half hour video (and an awkward one at that), showing the myriad of possibilities in the metaverse, or at least how they imagine it. 

It’s Already Here…

The metaverse isn’t new; it’s simply a change of medium for ideas that already exist, and a way to more deeply integrate them into our lives (for better or for worse). If it’s meant to be a tool to connect people, the framework has been set by social media platforms in the last two decades. If it’s to game virtually, let’s not forget the increased popularity of VR gaming as of late, but also Sega’s attempt at VR headset in the early 1990s, showing that VR was always the intention for the evolution of the medium. Xbox Live and other gaming networks have already created the platform for connecting millions of people online in an interactive setting, where avatars can cross over multiple games. 

Epic Games and Roblox are especially integral to the metaverse as they’re beginning to use applications of the metaverse before it’s even technically here. Epic Game’s virtual concerts connect millions of people in virtual spaces to “live”, exclusive concerts from artists like Travis Scott and Ariana Grande. Roblox’s collaboration with Gucci and Vans to create virtual worlds for these fashion companies, with exclusive digital clothes and interactive experiences. These collaborations are not only bringing these companies new fans but also promoting other fashion labels to diversify their marketing strategy to account for this new medium of consumer engagement. 

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs), which are essentially unique digital assets, are an essential part of the metaverse as well, as they create the foundation for virtual ownership. NFTs can take the form of unique digital artworks, pieces of digital fashion, or in-game items. Sotheby’s created a virtual copy of their London art gallery where the walls are lined with NFTs, in an effort to get people to grasp the concept of NFTs better. The metaverse is the virtual version of our world, and NFTs could be virtual versions of art.

Every technological product, whether it’s social media, gaming, e-commerce, or utility apps, all envision operating seamlessly in our lives to create a world resembling that of science fiction novels. We have so far been limited by the technology of the times, but even though we’re not quite there yet, we’re starting to get close and companies are adapting to what seems inevitable.

…And it’s Weird

The idea of the metaverse was alive and being worked upon by many others before Mark Zuckerberg took it upon himself to become the face of the metaverse (and an awkward one at that.) Microsoft is also a key player in the dominance over the metaverse. Horizon Workspaces is an example of their effort to a slow transition to a more virtual way of living. Rather than attend zoom calls, one can attend business meetings using a VR headset, taking on the persona of their personal avatar while staring at a 3D rendered meeting room (or space station, or aquarium, or whatever the mind can dream of) to conduct their meetings. However, at their current stage, headsets are clunky, require extensive setup, cause migraines and motion sickness, and they’re expensive. Avatars aren’t quite photorealistic yet, or if they are, they probably don’t have legs because our technology isn’t good at making them move realistically. Not to mention it just feels dystopian: the idea that we all sit in our rooms with a headset on and interact with subpar 3D versions of ourselves and our world when there’s already a world to explore.

What’s the deal with Virtual Pets

Going off the topic of NFTs, imagine owning a pet in the metaverse. This pet could technically have virtual DNA, unique to it, created by blockchain technology, that you and only you would own. These pets could be “bred” for specific purposes, perhaps for aesthetics for virtual pet shows, or for speed for virtual races and bettings. 

But let’s address the virtual elephant in the room, would we care about these pets? I think it’s quite possible, even though it may not be as much as a real pet. And that principle applies to any virtual commodities, which are already sold for thousands of dollars in popular online games.

Virtual Consumerism is Still Consumerism

I’m willing to bet a lot of us have played Club Penguin, maybe owned a Puffle or two, or maybe we even bought a membership so we could deck these Puffles out (anyone? Just me? Okay..) Or take Tamagotchis for example, a non-existent pet that we still care about. The point is, things don’t need to be “real” to elicit a human response or create a sense of status. Take CSGO weapon skins, paint-jobs for weapons in Counter Strike: Global Offensive, the world’s most famous multiplayer first person shooter game, for example. They’re completely cosmetic items (i.e do not provide any competitive advantage and solely exist for the purpose of aesthetics). The CSGO skin market was expected to have a market cap of $1 Billion. Yet, combining all games, the video game loot box revenue in 2020 was ~$15 Billion and is expected to reach $25 Billion in 2025. Not only are these items irrelevant to the real world, but also to in-game performance, yet there’s a high demand for them. 

Humans are consumeristic by nature. We buy things we don’t need even in the real world for the sake of status because status, as perceived by others, gives us an evolutionary and societal edge. An article about why people buy in-game items with virtual money by Vitor Dal Pra uses the Theory of Consumption Values(TCV), to explain this. Vitor states that “The player needs to identify themselves with the character they are playing to purchase in-game items,” as then “the purchase decision for a video game character becomes a purchase decision for yourself.” This concept of empathizing with a virtual character is prevalent in games as you spend hours with this character, choose their dialogue, their appearance, and see them emerge victorious. The metaverse will take this one step further; your virtual character, for all intents and purposes, IS you. They’ll look like us, live in digitized versions of our homes, and have the same friends and colleagues that we do. And when everyone is part of the metaverse, not only will involvement be inescapable, but so will economic consumption.

Second Life and the Case for Virtual Economies

In 2003, Linden Labs released Second Life, an application that allows users to create a virtual avatar, and essentially, live a second life in their world. This world has different hubs/rooms/lobbies that can be created by other users. Your avatar can freely and seamlessly travel between them (sounds like the metaverse doesn’t it?). What sets Second Life apart from a “game”, is that anything is possible in it. No, really, anything. There are obviously games to be played, clothes to be bought, people to meet and chat with. 

But unlike in “games”, Second Life allows you to buy and sell sexual acts, gamble, and drink. It is the best example of a “virtual world” we have right now, and can give us a peek into how a user interacts with a virtual world which is auxiliary to their lives, how they buy and sell commodities, and how they customize their worlds and their characters. The currency, the Linden Dollar, is regulated by Linden Labs, which acts as a central bank and government. Linden Labs collects taxes on all purchases, levies fees for the creation of worlds, regulates how much money is in circulation in-game to avoid inflation, and leaves the rest to the in-game stock exchange. This money can then be converted into real-world money. Any user who can create something of value for another user in Second Life could technically then make a living from it. For example, a couple quit their real jobs during the recession to begin creating luxury islands on Second Life which they would then rent out to other users for a profit. 

If we apply this same principle to the metaverse, where users can sell NFTs, or create virtual theme parks or casinos, one can begin to see a future where a virtual economy can begin coinciding with our real one. Not only would there be more jobs, but virtual commodities come with the benefit that they are highly replicable at no additional cost in terms of factors of production, thus being better for the environment too. 

Evolution through Dehumanization

The hardest barrier to get over would be the uncanniness of living in a virtual world. The idea that people around the world would one day sit at home with headsets or augmented reality glasses on and hang out at virtual concerts or virtual vacation spots has a dystopian air. I don’t disagree with that, and while it certainly looks bleak, we may not have a choice.

At one point, it may have been bizarre to consider that people would be unable to live without a portable electronic device on them at all times, but that’s exactly where we’ve found ourselves. The metaverse promises us access to what our phones already do, except without the limitations of looking into a screen. If we rid ourselves of the notion that evolution is biological and consider the possibility that at a certain point, evolution was meant to make us half-machine, then virtual and augmented reality will do just that. With the many hurdles in our path to colonizing other planets, perhaps we were meant to live and consume virtually after depriving our planet of its resources. And just like with the smartphone, disconnecting or opting out may not be as much of a choice. We won’t care that it’s not real if it’s the norm, and we’ll consume and purchase all the same.

Take-Home Points

  • The metaverse is an interwoven network of virtual worlds and avatars, enabling new ways to socialize and navigate daily life.
  • Interactions in the metaverse will take the form of meetings, concerts, games, and everything in between via virtual reality with custom avatars or augmented reality with holograms and superimposed graphics on our world.
  • The dawning of the metaverse is already here, with key players like Microsoft creating conferencing apps and Facebook investing in VR games and technologies. 
  • NFTs, i.e any kind of digital asset, are on the rise and will play a major role in the metaverse as they create the framework for guaranteeing ownership of virtual items. 
  • Even though the metaverse is far from being all-pervasive in our lives, NFTs and VR have the potential to completely take over our lives one day. 
  • Ownership of virtual items has already existed for a while, with video games playing a key role in proving the lucrativity of digital assets. 
  • The principles and psychology of consumerism are the same in the real world as they would be in the virtual world i.e consumerism is irrational.
  • Virtual worlds already exist, even though not as seamless as the metaverse wishes to promise, as is visible from Second Life, a popular virtual life “game”.
  • Second Life, with its own currency and internal economy that allows millions of users to not only earn in the game but support themselves in the real world, makes a case for how the metaverse and digital consumption could create a new sector of our economy.
  • Virtual goods and virtual reality, though weird, have the potential to take over our lives to prompt us to spend money and engage in its economy. It also offers the benefit of virtual goods being infinitely replicable with no environmental costs. 
  • Whether real or virtual, the reasons for excessive consumption remain the same, and shifting to a virtual economy may be the inevitable course for humanity.

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