“Metaverse” might be a new word in our daily life but it is definitely not a new concept. It became widely discussed and popularized through Mark Zuckerberg’s action of changing the name “Facebook” to “Meta” in October 2021. But this concept originated from the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash by American author Neal Stephenson. Stephenson had already outlined a future in which, by putting on a headset and goggles and finding a terminal, one could connect to an alternative three-dimensional computer-simulated “reality” in which each person could have his or her own avatar in a virtual space parallel to the real world.
In this virtual world, everything in the real world is digitally replicated and people can do everything in the virtual world, such as shopping, eating, and making virtual friends, as well as accomplishing “ambitions” that are not possible in the real world, such as instantaneous movement.
What’s more, not only can people live another life in the virtual world through this avatar, but the actions of the virtual world can also influence the real world. In Snow Crash there is a man nicknamed Raven, who simultaneously sells a drug called “Snow Crash” online and offline, which is actually a computer virus that causes the avatar in the virtual world to exit the Metaverse due to a computer crash, while the person in real life would also lose their sense of self.
In 2018, Spielberg’s film Ready Player One brought the Metaverse concept to the big screen, with the Oasis (OASIS), created by a VR gaming company, which can be considered an early example of the representation of the Metaverse.
Some examples: the dissolution of the boundaries between games and reality
Realistically, the virtual spaces created by games may be the fastest gateway to the Metaverse. Fuelled by the pandemic, walls between virtuality and reality are constantly being broken down and the boundaries between games and life are dissolving. In April 2020, the famous American pop star Travis Scott held a virtual concert in the game Fortnite, and 12.3 million gamers worldwide became virtual concert-goers immediately. The University of California, Berkeley, even brought graduation ceremonies to the game, re-creating the campus in My World and bringing graduates together as avatars for graduation ceremonies. As a result, games are no longer a leisure time pastime or a virtual escape from real life but are increasingly becoming an extension of reality.
The First taste of the Metaverse: Roblox’ attempt
First released in 2006, Roblox is a gaming platform that combines casual games, self-built content, and virtual worlds, allowing players to develop 3D, VR, and other digital content through Roblox, making it the equivalent of a UGC gaming platform where players are both participants and creators.2
By using Roblox’s simple and easy-to-use development tools, everyone can design their own mini-games. The model is similar to that of the sandbox game My World, but Roblox goes a step further in that the ‘labor’ that players do on the platform can be turned into real ‘wealth’.
Many of the mini-games on the platform have equipment, props, and other items that can be purchased using the virtual currency Robux, which can be earned through in-game rewards or purchased for cash. Robux paid to the platform by players is deposited into the game creator’s virtual account. After a certain amount has been accumulated, the creator can ‘withdraw’ it for real-world currency, with one Robux currently equalling approximately $0.0125. Anne Shoemaker, 20, who has earned $500,000 from Roblox during the epidemic on two games she made, has now set up her own game company, Full flower Studio, with a team of 14 people.3
Roblox thus seems to fulfill some of the basic elements of the Metaverse: a virtual place, a reality doppelganger, a social network, and a socio-economic system. But the real Metaverse is much more than that.
Matthew Ball, a leading venture capital analyst, believes the Metaverse should have six characteristics: permanence, real-time, no access restrictions, economic functionality, connectability and creativity.4 He also stressed that the Metaverse is not the same as a “virtual space”, a “virtual economy”, a mere game, or a UGC platform.
Roblox was the first company to include the Metaverse in its prospectus, and in addition to Roblox, other technology companies have also made their own moves.
Back in 2014, Facebook acquired virtual reality company Roblox for $2 billion, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “Oculus VR will change gaming first, then digital social, and then it will change the world.” Facebook has now launched a beta version of its VR social platform, Horizon, which is seen as a major step forward for Facebook into the Metaverse. In an interview with The Information magazine, Zuckerberg expanded on his AR/VR plans and described a world where we can virtually communicate and socialize from anywhere at a distance, while still having a sense of presence.