Microsoft acquired gaming company Activision Blizzard for $70bn, with the New York Times claiming the following in a now-edited paragraph:
There are two or three things that confuse me about this paragraph:
Excuse me, what does this have to do with Meta?
Wait, what’s that about the metaverse? What does the metaverse have to do with any of this?
Wait, what’s that? VR offerings from Microsoft? What’s that got to do with anything?
The metaverse part of this sentence came from a quote from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella:
“Gaming is the most dynamic and exciting category in entertainment across all platforms today and will play a key role in the development of metaverse platforms,” Chief Executive Satya Nadella said in the release.
If you are a journalist reading this, I plead with you, I beg of you, stop simply printing exactly what someone says as if it’s true just because they said it. Satya Nadella, like every CEO talking about the metaverse right now, is quite literally making it up. There is no “metaverse” - every discussion of the metaverse is simply a way in which terrible crypto creeps are setting up ways to extract capital or an attempt to gain mindshare in a term that means very little.
The metaverse speaks of an interlinked series of virtual worlds where people will “live,” a thing that people have been trying to do since Second Life (who are now trying to capitalize on being the only actual metaverse-adjacent company) and catastrophically failing at because it is a solution in search of a problem.
I’ve mentioned “interlinked” only because without these worlds being linked, you are quite literally describing video games - virtual worlds you go in and take actions in.
Anyway, Head of Xbox Phil Spencer said the following:
…he says that video games, whose sales have soared during Covid, could offer lessons for the workplaces that have moved online in the pandemic: “We look at these virtual spaces, and some of the things that we’ve learned in video games of people coming together to cooperate together, to achieve tasks.”
Jesus fucking Christ. What is this, 1994? Oh, you can come together with people and cooperate to complete tasks in games, what a novel concept, Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox, you fucking genius. But wait, there’s more:
And the learning that we have over the years, not only with what you’d say is today’s Teams or Zoom users but also thinking about Gen Z, there’s a whole generation that are growing up where their social connection to the world is through video games. It’s not just about the play itself, but it’s about, where do you hang out after school? Where do you meet your friends? What are those shared experiences that you like to go do together? For the generation that’s growing up, that being a natural way to get things done with your coworkers is going to be much more native than it is for my generation of people, who will seem like kind of a bolt-on to the experience that I’ve had.
I realize it would be unusual to expect Kara Swisher to stop someone powerful she’s interviewing and ask a pointed question rather than letting the moment pass because criticizing the power damages one’s access, but it is so frustrating watching a powerful person take something very old and hurriedly describe it in a way that’s meant to be new. It is ridiculous not to say that this has been going on decades, and is not new, and is not a metaverse, but because all the rich guys got together and shook hands and said this was a new term, they’re all acting as if it’s new and means something other than “people like to do stuff online.”
All of the stuff he described has existed for decades, and Spencer would know - he joined Microsoft in 2008, a year when Microsoft released the Xbox 360 and several years into the existence of Xbox Live. I should also add that World of Warcraft (which Microsoft will soon own) was out since 2004 and had several senior team members that were avid EverQuest players hired for that domain expertise. For Spencer to act as if “people are doing stuff together on the computer” is a new phenomenon is insulting.
Spencer does vaguely talk about it, though:
…as gaming moved into the home, there was a real desire to bring that sense of community, belonging, togetherness that we had in the arcades. And our experiences that we built kind of mirrored that, as you talk about massively multiplayer games, people playing World of Warcraft, people playing Ultima Online Minecraft together. The sense of community and being together is just kind of a native part of what gaming is today.
Fascinating, Paul. So, what’s…new, then?
Where do you meet your friends? What are those shared experiences that you like to go do together? For the generation that’s growing up, that being a natural way to get things done with your coworkers is going to be much more native than it is for my generation of people, who will seem like kind of a bolt-on to the experience that I’ve had.
I think that it is hilariously hypocritical that the same company that published a spurious study about how remote work isn’t good for socializing is now saying that generations are growing up socializing on the computer.
Without quoting any more of this poorly-done access journalism, Spencer’s point is basically that because people have got together to play video games together, they will also want to use these same concepts to complete work with or socialize with other people virtually. The big, stupid descriptions of this being “how people live” betray a lack of understanding of how human beings socialize, game, work and…well, human beings themselves.
If you call Ultima Online and Minecraft “metaverses,” you have to start calling IRC chats or any digital communication metaverses. Unless you mean that it’s entirely about social connection, IMVU and Second Life did it, and they did not take the world by storm. They didn’t take it by storm because despite some people - millions of them! - enjoying socializing in video games or digital worlds, I would argue a lot of people found using specific virtual spaces for socializing awkward and weird. With no distraction - like a game, or an in-game concert, or something - you’re just standing around. And that sucks.
Furthermore, as affordable or free video/voice conferencing has arrived on basically every device, the need for avatar-based communication as a means of digital interaction isn’t necessary if you want to communicate online.
Another critical point is that gaming as a means of hanging out with your friends is not the same thing as “living” in the computer, and conflating the two is an extremely silly way to view the world. There is an argument that we live digital lives - I spend too much time on Twitter, and have friends on there I’ve never met that I am fairly close with, but that is not “living in a metaverse.” It’s an extension of our real lives with the removal of geography - we are still the same person, communicating with our real names, talking to people that we would likely want to talk to in person.
This does change for those who want to keep anonymous (and I believe everybody should be allowed to be anonymous online) - trans people exploring new identities being a prime example - but I do not believe that this is an example of a metaverse. Perhaps it’s a metapersona - an alternative identity that lets you, to quote the article I just linked, “protect one’s identity in the hope of exploring a new one” - but to consider that a metaverse just muddies the word to the point that it’s utterly meaningless.
The Impossible Metaverse
If a metaverse is just a series of linked digital worlds, it is neither a new nor a novel concept. If the idea is that it’s linked virtual worlds, it’s also an exercise in futility - you will not see World of Warcraft connect with The New World, because (as Chris Pollock describes in detail) cross-title assets alone are an impossibility - how exactly are these worlds going to connect? And if your answer is “they can use an overarching platform!” I am going to laugh, then hate you - if you use a standardized platform to make your metaverse come true, you are going to have to standardize assets, standardize gameplay, and basically make the same game over and over again.
Want some evidence? Look at Minecraft. While it has an incredibly strong community that has done really cool things, it is also hamstrung by the platform itself - you can only do whatever is doable with the code and means of creation in Minecraft. Little Big Planet and Dreams let you create your own worlds - but are limited by the platforms themselves and the means of creation within them. The only way to leave these limitations behind is to create multiple things with the same coding language, and then connect them - except you’d only be as intricate as your least intricate connection. That’s why the extent of two connected games usually extends only to interpreting a save file.
Virtual Work Doesn’t Work
To the larger point that has been made several times about people “going to work” in the metaverse, my general problem with that is that people do not go into games just to talk. The majority of gamers aren’t playing a bad game just so they can talk to their friends - they’re playing something that at least is somewhat fun, and enjoy it more by doing it with people they like. It is something they do, not because of the convenience, but because of the shared experience of playing the game and the unique experiences of playing it themselves and with others.
This means that people aren’t going to log onto a virtual world for work just because they like virtual worlds. Kids aren’t playing Fortnite just to talk to friends - they’re playing a game together that they enjoy that’s also a really good social experience.
The big problem with the assumptions of “virtually working together in the metaverse” is they, like so many other things about work, assume that the way we did things in the office is what we’re missing. People generally do not enjoy going to work. Microsoft and many other companies are making assumptions about “what we need for a business metaverse” start with the incorrect assumption that we actually need one.
It’s a problem that’s created by people’s ignorance of work being a transaction of money for labor. When you start trying to create “virtual worlds” to do your work, you should start with a simple question: why am I doing this? What does this get do that Zoom and Slack don’t? And why do I feel this need to be around people to get things done? Being next to a virtual avatar in a 3D conference room does nothing for me for many of the same reasons as the office, but it’s even more hollow - partly because of the technological limitations, but also because…why am I here if I don’t need to be?
That’s the key - utility. People play games for fun, and play games with each other because it’s more fun than playing alone. And deep down, what does Microsoft want? People don’t “live” in the office and stay there only as much as they need to (even if they’re spending time there to seem busy or “be visible”), and acting as if people want this is so utterly corrupt. Nobody wants this! And even those who want to go back to the physical office likely don’t want to go to a digital one - socializing online, as much as I enjoy it, as deep as the relationships are, is not quite the same as physically seeing someone, though the depth needed for a professional relationship is not one that I’d argue requires physical presence.
The one exception to all of this is if we somehow invent technology that effectively moves our consciousness into the computer (like the show Upload) or allows us to experience digital worlds on the sensory level and same detail as real life. That is the one thing this all needs to actually fulfill any of the vague, misleading promises people are making about the Metaverse - and it is, I’d argue, over 100 years away. VR or AR glasses are not the solution - anything you have to “put on” is going to be a problem unless it’s something so wildly different that it will look like magic to people living today.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t solid metaversal applications - I imagine that virtual worlds that can be spun up for marketing or sales or presentations could be kinda useful and cool - but they are niche, and they are not going to alter the fabric of the universe. It is disingenuous to pretend that we’re anywhere near whatever it is that Mark Zuckerberg had rendered to distract people, and it sucks that so many companies fell in line for fear that their investors would get mad.
It is a huge disappointment how many reputable media outlets are taking these companies at their word, repeating the same sins that Magic Leap did with their faked Augmented Reality demo. It’s depressing watching people explain “what the metaverse is” and immediately start talking about stuff that doesn’t really exist yet unless you obfuscate either how clunky the tech or spurious the terminology is.