Last month, The New York Times wrote about something that was hardly new or newsworthy: a marriage in the “metaverse”.
The bride wore a flower crown with a buttoned gray skirt worthy of a downtown office. The groom looked like Jeff Bezos. At the reception there were guests and a stage and a photo slideshow. Everything was familiar except the place. Where were they? It turns out that the bride’s corporate attire wasn’t too out of place. Instead of a church or hall, their wedding took place in the ‘metaverse’, specifically an unknown, low-fi virtual world called Virbela, an outgrowth of real estate company eXp World Holdings, which employs both. halves of the couple.
Let’s be clear about one thing: there is no metaverse. At least not yet. No one really agrees on what a metaverse is, but by averaging, more credible definitions produces a persistent social cyberspace that intersects with the IRL economy and integrates with other online platforms. At present, nothing is doing it on a noticeable scale. Instead, we have a few busy virtual worlds like Second life, a handful of popular massively multiplayer online role-playing games like World of warcraft, and many tech companies are salivating about a new way to mark their proliferation of digital products and services. And, of course, there’s also Virbela and his kind of weird, underpopulated stuff ripped straight from a 2005 iteration of Internet Explorer.
There are definitional cartilages, of course. Tech companies have discovered the benefits of characterizing a metaverse as a continuation of their own products or services. Meta, for example, has decided that integrating virtual reality is important for a metaverse; and conveniently, its Horizon Worlds run on the company’s Oculus Quest headset. Then there are the blockchain companies that preach the essentiality of their own coins to their own cyberspace. Now, after almost a year of the hype, separating the meat from the metaverse fat has just gotten slightly easier. This is cyberspace, connected, embodied and saved. There is still just one problem. All that is truly desirable in this metaverse feels like a simplified version of the online games that millions of people have been playing for decades.
It’s been 20 years since the wedding bells first rang Second life. Game developer Square Enix included mechanics for sending invites, composing greetings, and exchanging rings in the 2002s. Final Fantasy XI. Outside of nuptials, online games already offer the most compelling functions associated with the “metaverse,” often with greater graphical fidelity, more complex social systems, and on a considerably larger scale. As professional architects and governors of cyberspace, it was game developers who rehearsed and mastered the two or three really promising attributes of a metaverse, revolving primarily around socializing in virtual worlds.
Since 1996, the furry avatars of gamers have been walking around cybercrime in MMORPGs FurcadieIt’s almost 32-bit. Yet here we are, over two decades later, hearing tech makers preach about the things digital catgirls were doing back then. It would be cute if it wasn’t so unsettling to see these executives doing it with the same bravado. Mark Zuckerberg’s crazy pitch to build the future of work in Meta’s Metaverse evokes the breathless predictions of early tech journalists about how, in a brave new world to come, corporate culture would migrate to Second life. We would be there, they promised, floating our winged Sonic the Hedgehog avatars in each other’s booths to talk about the Dow Jones. The school would also be downloaded, the technologists thought. “Aaron Delwiche, assistant professor at Trinity University in San Antonio,” a 2004 WIRED article read, “often brings students from his Games for the Web class together in an unlikely classroom: The Known Metaverse under the name of Second life. “