Mark Zuckerberg has had a difficult few weeks. Since its release as the first public image of the metaverse — or, at least, the version conceived by Meta — the Zuck’s face, rendered in less-than-impressive graphics, has been the subject of numerous jokes. The company describes the metaverse as “Facebook 2.0,” a fully immersive VR environment for socialization, collaboration, and the future of work. The fear with the metaverse has been that it will simply be Facebook with VR graphics. The fact that the game debuted with a “Sims”-style rendering of the CEO’s face hasn’t put that fear to rest.
The metaverse appears to elicit more jeers and silence than acceptance. This naturally causes concern in the Zuck household. Meta, the company that encompasses all of Facebook’s business ventures, is reportedly — and understandably — concerned that it may have staked its name on a VR social network that is neither particularly social nor particularly effective at virtualizing reality (via Twitter). If Meta is going to solve that problem, it may begin by playing “Fortnite.”
Fortnite, Minecraft, Second Life and the virtualization of culture
It may appear strange to discuss a free-to-play video game in the same digital breath as something designed to reinvent the entire concept of online interaction. However, as Nick Statt of Protocol correctly points out, “Fortnite” has achieved goals that Meta is nowhere near. People are playing “Fortnite,” as Statt points out, and it’s a lot of fun. That would put Meta’s version of the metaverse two steps ahead. “Fortnite” was never intended to be a revolution. According to IGN, the battle royale hit was a last-minute creative pivot on a failing team-based shooter that stumbled into global success. It’s now a thriving digital community that’s as much about building as it is about blasting.
The building aspect of “Fortnite” demonstrates a path forward for the metaverse. Spaces for global collaborative creativity have existed for decades, but they have only recently been packaged as games. “Minecraft” outlasted “Fortnite” by six years as the preferred setting for no-pressure collaboration and no-limits gaming. Similar communities have emerged in “Roblox” and, to a lesser extent, in Sony’s “Dreams” with its Dreamiverse.
That is only the new blood. Older nerds will remember flocking to virtual settings with even less graphical pop than Meta’s waxy Styrofoam look. The venerable “Second Life,” which debuted in the bleak darkness of 2003, is still alive and well among its prettier descendants. Massive creative and collaborative projects also take place in MMOs such as “World of Warcraft” and “EVE Online,” and browser-based oddities such as “Kingdom of Loathing” continue to have fans. MUDs and MUCKs are still populated by ASCII veterans. The list goes on and on. Every instance of virtualization here, from “Fortnite’s” latest update to ’90s-vintage text-based MUDs, has one quality in common that Meta has thus far overlooked.
Reality is abundant and low-value
“[Users] live here because they make friends here, and they can build things, and they can externalize their thoughts,” “Second Life” creator Philip Rosedale said of his creation in 2006, and the same can be said of MUDs, “Minecraft,” and, yes, “Fortnite” — the latter of which even added a mode entirely for socializing with others called Party Royale.
The disappointing metaverse reveal informed a number of people, including Meta’s own investors (via investors.com), that the company’s product isn’t ready yet. The current digital consensus on Meta’s metaverse is that it appears to be a VR version of the creation and collaboration that everyone already does in the real world. The core offering of the metaverse appears to be motion controls and immersive graphics. They already exist in reality.
Virtual communities have historically thrived when they make offers that go beyond the tangible. Building in “Minecraft,” character customization in “Second Life,” and seasonal madness in “Fortnite”: successful virtual communities can do things that the real world cannot. Skepticism about Meta’s future is likely to persist until it can put together an equally compelling offer of its own.