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What virtual worlds in the coming multiverse era will look like

Virtual Worlds EC-1 Part 3: The experience of these new social environments


Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

Gaming and social media are on a collision course, the result of which will be mainstream popularity of virtual worlds primarily driven by user-generated content (UGC) and anchored in small groups and one-to-one interactions.

Games targeting core gamers will remain a thriving market, and social apps centered on broadcasting content will remain popular for photo sharing and news tracking. However, a lot of our daily online social interaction will shift to multiverse virtual worlds where avatars mark our presence, we own digital goods, earn money from our contributions to the world and gain a deeper sense of community than other types of online interactions.

(This is part three of a seven-part series about virtual worlds.)

Most people will participate in multiple virtual worlds depending on their mood, personality and social circle. A half dozen worlds will be particularly popular but there will be many niche ones. Some may require that you use your real identity (or at least the name on your Facebook account) but most will not.

A multiverse, not the metaverse

These worlds don’t have to remain tied to the norms of our physical world — they can be imaginative realms with different physics. Some worlds may strive to look photorealistic while others will go for artistic distinction. Rules, cultural norms, economic models, and user controls will vary. Some worlds will be oriented around war and conflict, others will be oriented around peaceful commerce and participation in a tranquil society, and still others will take an educational focus looking to simulate areas of Earth for closer study.

Let’s paint a picture. You have 15 minutes before you need to make dinner, so you pull out your phone to see what’s happening. You decide to enter the world you spend the most time in: a multi-planetary universe where you can teleport around. You and five friends have been developing a new block within one of the main cities in this universe where people congregate.

This city expands upward with floating neighborhood blocks rather than sprawling outward as its population grows. Your block has several apartments that you’re interior decorating (one of which was just featured on an Instagram account curating cool designs within this world), a vertical farm that grows and sells food eaten by the avatars in this world, and a café where curated chatting takes place between avatars.

Your particular avatar today is wearing a new set of clothes you bought last week for 500 coins from another user you met who loves using this world’s feature for designing clothing and has built a reputation for unique styles.

Seeking something more action-packed, you then decide to teleport to the stadium where another friend is playing a game of amateur Quidditch. Each month, the ten top-ranked Quidditch players from each city within this world face off in a two-hour tournament, and users who regularly frequent certain cities tend to rally around their “home” team and watch. Since so many users tune in, Coca-Cola sponsors it and the participating players earn virtual coins that, like all the other coins in this universe, can be cashed out into U.S. dollars if you want.

This is just one example, envisioned with the bias of what I personally would find cool. Worlds will vary dramatically in every facet of their design but will include simple tools for creating spaces, items and organizations. To succeed, they must become open environments that instill relationship building and a sense of purpose and become a place where users can contribute to new entertainment and trading experiences. Worlds must allow friends to self-organize in private spaces in addition to allowing users to explore the world and encounter strangers. In short, each world has to recreate the core elements of the human experience from the physical world.

Virtual worlds are a more meaningful personal and social experience. That’s why they’ll gain mainstream popularity. While broadcast-based social networks offer a chance to portray your life differently than it actually is, virtual worlds offer the opportunity to live your life differently. In a virtual world, you do things, not just write short posts or upload video clips.

You can interact with friends from the physical world or you can connect with strangers under an alias, without being judged by anything other than your contributions to the virtual world and the creative ways you’ve chosen to visually represent your avatar.

It’s a misunderstanding to think that the main appeal of MMOs is just the adrenaline of simulated combat or racing. While subconscious for many, the allure is in the social mechanics of the games — membership in social groups, rivalries, political tactics, coordinating group actions. With an open-world MMO, humans socialize in more advanced, exciting ways than they typically do in their daily life working in an office, meeting friends for dinner, etc. They are characters in big dramas where the stakes are high and everything happens on a much faster timeline than in real life.

The multiverse generation of virtual worlds will make social connection the centerpiece even further, with broader scope of social interactions and less emphasis on one specific format or scenario.

As humans, we crave membership in a tribe and a sense of purpose. Virtual worlds offer both.

People seem to have a diminished sense of deep belonging to a community these days. Participation in religious organizations, civic clubs, and other forms of association have been declining in the U.S. for decades. For its part, social media often creates the illusion of friendship through social interactions so small they carry less emotional investment than even the briefest in-person interactions. Follows, likes, and short comments are about breadth over depth, about amassing acquaintances over developing deeper friendships. That’s why loneliness is rising the more connected we have become as a society through social apps, with some studies of teens and younger adults showing a close, positive correlation between how much participants use social media and how lonely they feel.

Intensive experiences guided by shared purpose build relationships far deeper and faster than casual coffee meetings and Instagram comments. This is the social benefit of people who go through military basic training, group therapy retreats, fraternity initiation or humanitarian work together.

Virtual worlds offer the opportunity to contribute to a society in a more straightforward, higher stakes way than what most people feel they can do in the physical world. Within a virtual world, you can be an important political leader or military general or businesswoman. Or you could enjoy the escape of just being a farmer or sheriff doing your small part to support a community that stands for something and is threatened in some way.

A paradox of modern society is that most of us, thankfully, no longer face life-or-death battles for survival due to war or resource shortages, but as a result, our daily lives lack an intense, simple purpose. For most of us, there’s no war requiring our service, no Frodo Baggins-style quest that’s been foisted upon us to save the world, no Olympic medal we’re in intensive training to compete for. While we find profound purpose in activities like serving our family or working at a company we believe makes the world better, daily life in pursuit of these causes is generally nuanced and non-emergency. The context of our role in a virtual world can provide a simplicity and intensity of purpose for an hour or two that’s hard to find (in a safe way) otherwise.

Multiverse virtual worlds will offer an escape that is actually about collaborating with others to contribute to a society, the society of a virtual world that’s really just an extension of our existing society in the physical world. As we will explore later in this series, large virtual economies tie directly to wealth and influence within the real-world economy, ultimately making them part of the real economy.

This isn’t to say there won’t be bad behavior within virtual worlds. Bullying is not uncommon in the competitive environments within many popular MMO, and anonymity tends to result in people doing and saying hurtful things they would have refrained from in-person if their real identity was attached. Games are often designed to create intense competition without enough analysis given to the psychological impact of the virtual world’s incentive structure on how people build relationships through collaboration.

The multiverse virtual worlds that will succeed as social hubs in this next era will be crafted with deep thought given to the social and economic pressures the dynamics of the world create, leading to new friendships and deepening relationships as opposed to zero-sum competitiveness with a collection of strangers who vary each time you enter the world.

If socializing within games is so popular, why hasn’t the multiverse arrived yet?

Virtual Worlds EC-1 (Special Series) Table of Contents

Also check out other EC-1s on Extra Crunch.

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