What happened to “metaverse,” the distant runner-up to “goblin mode” with less than one-tenth of the votes? As recently as August, I could’ve sworn we’d 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 Snow Crash, and now the metaverse is, supposedly, the very near-term future of the internet. The apparent commercial potential of the metaverse was so potent that it compelled Mark Zuckerberg to rename Facebook (parent company), if not also Facebook (website), to Meta, thus reimagining his social-media business as “a metaverse company” heading into 2022. But this year, rather than rapidly redefining the internet, the metaverse stalled, and user counts on the formative platforms have struggled to break into the tens of thousands, much less millions.
Zuckerberg’s Metaverse and its flagship multiplayer game (sorry, “social experience”), Horizon Worlds, reportedly suffered a dismal development cycle, involving thousands of employees and billions of dollars. The bleak exposés and tepid reviews suggest a longer, rougher road to total virtual immersion. Last month, Meta laid off more than 11,000 employees—about 13 percent of the company’s workforce. Now, Meta is bracing for a recession or at least a sector-wide slowdown among tech companies, which are cutting perks, pausing recruitment, and shrinking teams. Still, Meta continues to double down on the metaverse—in October, the company told investors to brace for bigger investments in the tech and bigger near-term operating losses—as the company’s best bet for growth heading into Web 3.0. In the meantime the tech discourse seems to have moved on in recent months; instead of the metaverse, generative AI, such as ChatGPT, is all the rage with its conversational responses transformed into viral content and divisive potential.
It’s been a bleak year for tech, notwithstanding the industry’s best efforts to combat the general tendency toward tech pessimism in the press. There’s the metaverse, so far defined by false starts. There’s cryptocurrency, currently in financial crisis. There’s social media, suffering the longest backlash of them all on a variety of platforms: product stagnation at Facebook and Instagram; geopolitical angst and psychological concerns about TikTok; stunt management and culture-war crusading at Twitter. The metaverse is still the most colorful promise. The metaverse is still cool. The metaverse is still unspoiled, unlike crypto, and still very largely undefined. But there’s a lesson for the metaverse, I suspect, in video games—and not the lesson usually drawn to illustrate the metaverse on a small scale and bolster confidence in the metaverse writ large.
The proponents of the metaverse often invoke the online lobbies for modern multiplayer games. These are lively places filled with spunky avatars, representing players from all over the world, queuing into rambunctious virtual spaces. These are the most spectacular sites of escapism in modern life. “It’s no wonder, then, that online universes like Fortnite and Roblox currently attract nearly 400 million users,” Thomas Stackpole writes in the Harvard Business Review, “and others like Decentraland and the Sandbox are growing rapidly.” He’s somewhat overselling the growth of the latter; Decentraland 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’d argue, he’s overselling the comparison. You spend 10 minutes in Decentraland—a “virtual destination for digital assets,” explorable in your browser—and discover it’s nothing like Fortnite and only kinda sorta like the popular Zoomer virtual sandbox Roblox. Decentraland is, in its current state, most like Action 52, one of those ancient compilations of janky prototypical games for the original Nintendo. This is speculative technology, of course, and these platforms may well flourish in due time—but even then, with some modest success, the metaverse could and maybe should remain a novelty.
Over the past several years, the video-game industry finally found some success, critically and commercially, in virtual reality. This was after decades of fads and flops. The major developers launched decently popular hardware and a handful of standout titles (Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, Half-Life: Alyx). But even with these breakthroughs, VR 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 of affordable VR headsets and successful VR franchises. Video-game culture, for all its obsession with “immersion,” doesn’t desperately need VR. The culture is content with the classic immersion found in open-ended multiplayer grinds, such as MultiVersus, and intensive single-player experiences, such as Elden Ring. VR now succeeds despite VR no longer being the inevitable apex 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 trade-offs (with advertisers, mainly) of the old web with the promise of user autonomy, cryptocurrency rewards, and total immersion. The watchword isn’t “metaverse” but rather “immersion.” But there’s still a crucial question at the heart of this promise: Do we want this? Better yet: Do we need this? Doesn’t the malaise always surrounding social media suggest otherwise? It’s tempting to dismiss so many worrisome rumblings about the social costs and psychological effects of social media as baseless techno pessimism from disaffected liberals (or as goofy moral panics about Chinese communists brainwashing our preteens with viral dances or gender memes or whatever). But social media has in fact annexed our attention spans and stranded us, for every waking moment of our lives, on the internet. In Stackpole’s otherwise optimistic assessment of the metaverse, he acknowledges as much when he wearily asks, “do I want to spend even more of my life online?” It’s hard to imagine that tending even more obsessively to our online personas will somehow make us more empowered, more fulfilled, and more free.
Video games and social media already encourage the sort of mental overinvestment that makes the more explicit, embodied immersion of the metaverse seem gimmicky and redundant. The immersive internet is already here, in Web 2.0. How much deeper can we go, and how many more phases can we take? How do you improve on Fortnite? By deleting the weapons and turning the whole thing into a crypto mixer for busy professionals? Are we sure?