Time Travel Experiment Discovers Meta’s Metaverse Still Sucks
Dear subscribers and readers of the Blind Spot;
Unbeknownst to the scientific community, our small media publication has just invented time travel. We have now returned from the year 2045 and can report the following… The world’s population will soon abandon all hope for a better tomorrow and plunge itself deeply into their VR headsets. It will then become preoccupied with building utopic pixellated societies à la Ready Player One.
And yet, even in this reality-light dystopia where humanity chooses to live in-game only, there is some unsurprising news.
Meta’s Metaverse is still played by absolutely no one.
When Zuckerberg announced Facebook would become Meta in October 2021 and go big on the metaverse, the decision was fawned over by many. Both boomers and zoomers quickly waded into Meta’s much publicised virtual fields to explore what life, as envisioned by planet earth’s most pre-eminent nerd, might look like.
The marketing had promised a pixellated environment that would shorten physical distances with illusory closeness. A world where you could play tennis with a friend from Hong Kong or sit in a virtual boardroom with colleagues from your latest pump-and-dump crypto startup. What they got was disembodied banality.
As is often the way when older generations expose themselves to new tech or trends, their efforts to be cool and hip fall short. Meta is no different. It has failed to deliver on anything remotely resembling an engaging Metaverse experience.
Key to this failure is the absence of the only real currency that matters in gaming: violence.
This misunderstanding is not really Meta’s fault. Faked violence shouldn’t be fun in a world where the real thing claims innocent lives.
Video games have attracted deserved notoriety and scrutiny for being overly grim since at least the Columbine massacre of 1999. Much, for example, was made of the fact that those shooters, who dubbed themselves the ‘trenchcoat mafia’, enjoyed playing the Counter-Strike video game in their free time. It didn’t take long for the world’s media to conclude the murderers must have been radicalised by their video gaming habits — which by today’s standards would be considered mild.
This led many parents, including mine, to look down on and worry about the unfortunate gaming addictions of their children. As their generation took over Facebook, it was they, not their kids, who came to influence affairs at Zuck towers. The perspective that virtual violence was bad and to be avoided stuck.
But positioning around the older generation in the metaverse and not the younger will cost them and their investors in the long run.
Because the sad truth is that pixelated violence is fun. And a metaverse without it will never be able to authentically sell itself as offering escapism to anyone.
The longer Meta stays committed to a sanitised and politically-correct version of its fake world, the sooner it will condemn itself to the fate of ‘sadgirl’ and ‘sadboy’ games like Second Life.
What Makes a Persistent Video Game Succesful?
Successful video games are a dime a dozen. Successful multiplayer persistence games, what Meta’s Metaverse effectively is, are far fewer. As the name suggests, these games are characterised by the in-game persistence of one’s characters in multi-player world(s) – which will continually level up, become wealthier, and evolve. Unlike most arcade or shooter games, you do not ‘reset’ every time you start a game anew. You continue on as normal.
Such games, when done right, are incredibly addictive and real-life replacing. Minecraft, ArmA Life, Runescape, or World of Warcraft have hijacked the real lives of countless young (and older) adults.
What formulas make these games a success? And more specifically, why do violent formulas work so much better at hooking players?
One clue might be found in the enlightenment concept of fortuna, or luck.
Fortuna is characterised as the ebb and flow of luck in one’s life. Skillfully navigating around one’s fortuna was popularised by Machiavelli’s Virtú (virtue).
The success of a game like ArmA Life or (Survival) Minecraft comes down to precisely this interplay between luck and skill. That means when games like Meta’s Metaverse dismiss violence as a condemnable secondary component, they reduce the influence of fortuna and throw the gaming baby out with the bathwater.
The inclusion of in-game toxicity, pain and violence is the secret sauce that renders games lifelike and incentivises players to invest time and money in them. But these real-world forces can only emulate real-world emotions for as long as one’s character can be killed, hurt, or robbed. The rush of waking up and not knowing whether your in-game house is still standing is what drives you to power up your PC and play.
It’s not sadism or brutishness. It’s life.
The best games understand this. They synthesise a survival instinct by blending the thrill of honing in-game skills that can help a player accumulate wealth with the potential risk and stress of being ‘griefed’ (in-game lingo for being impacted by a bad-faith player).
When Martin Luther nailed his proclamation to the door of Wittenberg’s castle church condemning the excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, he was motivated by the basic truth that economic success in this life is a worthy goal because the tos and fros of commercial activity, encapsulated by the ability to hustle and fail, are a central driver of mankind’s good character.
Should Meta desire a successful persistent gaming experience in its Metaverse offering, it should pay attention to the instinctive logic of in-game violence as a desirable currency in its own right.
As the gaming industry continues to outstrip others in growth, estimated to reach a total valuation of $321bn by 2026, there’s no doubt that the central component of the user experience will continue to orientate around violence.
Whether that’s a good or bad thing for society, can be debated to the early hours. But there’s no doubt in my mind that a censored and sanitised fake reality will always suck.
Meta’s business model and DNA requires getting people to spend time paying attention in order to sell targeted ads. Given that spending time in virtual worlds requires violence, I would change my focus to saving time, and this naturally points toward spending time at work. Imagine Meta at work where people are naturally spending 30-40 hours collaborating to solve problems for customers. I would twist the digital virtual worlds experience away from violence to productivity. Discord, Slack, and other collaborative canvases are already heading in this direction. Consider Croquet? https://youtu.be/Nu2Siz_rjTg
The sacrifice in meeting individuals in-game rather than just online will always be considerable and require a ‘pull’ from in-game workplaces that go far beyond simply opting to decide that productivity, and not violence, is what gets people to invest in an in-game space. The board room will make sense to conduct in the Metaverse if perhaps the boardmembers can have a go at shooting each other in game prior to a meeting to blow off steam, for instance. They won’t have fun playing in-game scrabble, which they would never choose to do in person anyways – whereas the violent option i’m sure is always a dark fantasy.
In-game is not the same as online. In-game requires an investment of time, a sacrifice to your eyes, and the familiarisation with an entirely new set of tools. This will be an automatic switch for most people, but only should the developers of Meta realise that the in-game environment should be used as what it was designed for; to do things you can’t do in real life. Until boomers realise they can’t just magic away the inherent violence of humanity and our new found passion in meting it away online, metaverses will be boring and staffed mostly by HR departments.