Microsoft recently acquired Activision Blizzard, the video gaming giant behind the iconic match-three puzzle game Candy Crush and the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) World of Warcraft. Each month, Activision Blizzard can count on serving approximately 400 million gamers!
Mark Zuckerberg has clearly stated that the metaverse will not only serve entertainment purposes.
Microsoft justified this purchase, at a cost of just below 70 billion US dollars, by stating that gaming would provide building blocks for the future metaverse, proclaimed as the next Internet generation, i.e. a single, universal virtual world to be entered via the use of virtual and augmented reality technology.
Looking at Microsoft, one could imagine that the metaverse will be a game. However, Mark Zuckerberg has clearly stated that the metaverse will not only serve entertainment purposes. Indeed, Facebook’s earlier announcement rebranding its mother company to Meta (referring to the metaverse) has already provided a lot of hype around this portmanteau, which consists of “meta,” meaning beyond, and “universe.”
Much more than games
Some virtual worlds, such as Second Life, are much more than games, and have been since their creation. Several users have claimed Second Life to be an extension of their first, i.e. real lives, as my research work with fellow ESCP Prof. Michael Haenlein showed as early as 2009.
A multitude of brands and companies have set up virtual islands and stores on Second Life, mainly for PR reasons, but not only: Deutsche Post, e.g., offered virtual cards to Second Life residents, which were subsequently delivered as real postcards all around the world. Of course, that was when postcards were still a thing.
Another example is the Crowne Plaza hotel chain, which allowed companies to book virtual meeting rooms in its Second Life simulated hotels the same way they could be rented in brick-and-mortar establishments.
However, the excitement around Second Life quickly died off for several reasons, with many brands either exiting the virtual world or simply leaving their online premises unattended.
Since then, a lot has changed:
- More people are familiar with virtual worlds now than there were then. Teenagers, young adults, and gamers of all ages regularly become avatars experiencing virtual environments, socializing with other players in virtual spaces such as Fortnite, Roblox, World of Warcraft and the like. Like Second Life, these gaming worlds have become a place to meet, chat, and make friends. Just think of Fortnite, which hosted live concerts by Ariana Grande and Travis Scott, obviously in the form of avatars, visited by several million spectators!
- Due to Covid-19, a significant share of the population has now become used to online environments for work purposes. Many of them have experienced virtual worlds within the scope of their jobs, to attend professional meetings, or to follow a course at their (virtual) university or school; these solutions already exist and are increasingly being applied.
Virtual worlds also surmount some of the limitations of simple video conferencing. One of these disadvantages that virtualization overcomes is so-called Zoom fatigue, i.e. tiredness resulting from excessive close-up eye contact, more difficulty identifying and sending non-verbal cues, or just constantly seeing oneself, which is also more demanding than what would happen in usual face-to-face meetings.
One should not only play but also work hard to prepare for the economic, legal, and societal challenges that are inevitable in the upcoming era of the more-than-just-a-game metaverse.
- Technology has improved a great deal. While navigating virtual worlds was rather tricky initially, and at times very slow, notably when the number of avatars in a space increased, today’s virtual environments no longer have such flaws. In addition, today’s users are often entirely immersed in such worlds through the wearing of headsets, whereas before, they merely stared at their screens.
In the future, avatars will become increasingly realistic representations of oneself, even authentically mimicking facial expressions. At some point, people might be transported into virtual worlds as fully-fledged holograms of one’s actual appearance. Such technology would essentially come close to “beaming” à la Star Trek, i.e. a human’s dematerialization into constituent particles, with immediate reconstitution at the target destination. What in the past was a utopian pipe dream may in the future become a reality, at least digitally speaking.
Although it is quite uncertain what the precise nature of the metaverse will be and when exactly we will be able to proclaim the command “beam me up, Scotty,” one thing is more certain: the metaverse will be much more than a game, with an immense, maybe even boundless, impact on economies and societies around the world. Therefore, one should not only play but also work hard to prepare for the economic, legal, and societal challenges that are inevitable in the upcoming era of the more-than-just-a-game metaverse.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not the position of ESCP Business School.