Mark Zuckerberg wants us to believe he’s figured out how we’ll socialize in the future. On October 28, he outlined his vision for the metaverse, a virtual environment where we can hang out, shop, and work. Yet its realization depends on Facebook and various other companies jumping into the metaverse space to develop the technologies it will depend on, and requires the public to buy into a vision where we spend more time sitting at home with virtual reality headsets on instead of going out into the physical world.
Silicon Valley has a long history of big dreams that are not realized, from the libertarian utopia that the internet was framed as in its early days to the ubiquitous autonomous vehicles that were supposed to have replaced car ownership by now. The metaverse is likely to suffer the same fate, but that doesn’t mean it will have no impact at all. As Brian Merchant has explained, the tech industry is in desperate need of a new framework to throw money at after so many of its big bets from the past decade have failed, and the metaverse could be poised to take that place.
In the few weeks since Zuckerberg’s keynote address, other companies have embraced aspects of the metaverse, but also have shown how malleable the term can be. On November 2, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella made his own metaverse pitch centered around enterprise and gaming. He cast a wide net arguing the concept encompassed existing video chat and collaboration tools, as well as games like Halo and Minecraft, and that those metaverse applications would be enhanced by virtual environments. As Nadella put it, the metaverse allows Microsoft to “embed computing in the real world, and to embed the real world into computing.”
I’m not sure that’s as attractive a statement as Nadella wants us to believe, but his focus on games and work may be a good reflection of what the metaverse could ultimately amount to. It remains to be seen whether we’ll all be pushed into virtual environments similar to how internet use has become a mandatory part of getting by in the modern world, but it’s much easier to see how video game companies and our workplaces could incentivize or even mandate our participation.
Taking Inspiration From Games
The growing hype around the metaverse is inspired, first and foremost, by recent developments in the video game industry. We can’t ignore how science fiction like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, where the term “metaverse” originates, or Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, a copy of which used to be given to all new employees at Facebook’s Oculus division, inspired the concept, but the business case comes from games.
Last year, venture capitalist Matthew Ball wrote an influential essay making the investors’ pitch for the metaverse and Fortnite was at the center of it. He argues that “Fortnite began as a game, but it quickly evolved into a social square.” Players came to play, but stayed to hang out and chat as the game built out additional spaces beyond the core hundred-player battle royale experience.
Companies have held events to promote movies like Star Wars, and major artists like Travis Scott and Ariana Grande have held virtual concerts. Corporations are also able to exploit their intellectual property by offering in-game items based on, for example, Marvel or DC characters. That’s also how Fortnite makes most of its money: players convert real money to V-bucks which they can use to buy virtual goods or the Battle Pass that provides regular game updates.
Ball believes the metaverse will extend beyond what’s currently offered on Fortnite, but sees it as a good demonstration of a “proto-Metaverse’ because of the socialization and commercial activity happening on it. Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney has seized on the metaverse narrative to raise additional funds for the company, but also to present himself in opposition to the existing tech industry. Instead of their closed ecosystems, he claims the metaverse will be an open and interoperable platform.
As part of the effort to show contrast, Epic sued Apple over its App Store terms, but as the judge in the case noted, the company would see considerable gains if it got its way. It’s a reflection of a trend in the tech industry’s history where promises of openness and individual empowerment often give way to corporate interests, if it’s not just PR from the beginning.
In the broader gaming space, EA, Square Enix, Take Two, and Ubisoft are jumping on the bandwagon with recent positive statements about NFTs fueled by the ridiculous amount of investor money being thrown at blockchain-based games. Some of these companies are considering making “play-to-earn” games that bring the speculative mania of NFTs into games by incentivizing players to keep playing for the chance to get valuable NFTs they can resell. In effect, gaming becomes their job because the virtual goods can yield ridiculous amounts of money. But the metaverse may do much more to change how people work.
A New Attack on Workers
The tech industry has a history of altering how people think about employment. In the 1980s, Silicon Valley companies were associated with a push for less hierarchical workplace structures, such as at companies like Apple, while in the aftermath of the recession it birthed the gig economy, which used the app-based delivery of services to misclassify workers as independent contractors, denying them the rights and benefits of employee status. The metaverse could alter things in several ways.
As the recent Microsoft announcements and Facebook’s own Horizon Workrooms demonstrate, applications for work are considered central to the metaverse, but why the sudden interest in virtual office environments? During the pandemic, many workforces, including those in tech, went remote to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but now many workers don’t want to go back. Employers deployed a whole range of software to track their employees since they weren’t in the office and metaverse applications would offer new and improved ways of doing that. If you can’t be in the physical office, you’ll be expected to be present in the virtual one — and monitored every minute you’re there.
But the transformation could be much more significant than an expansion of surveillance. Companies like Uber and Amazon not only rolled out algorithmic management systems through the 2010s to limit workers’ autonomy and increase production targets, but they also expanded the number of workers engaging in piece work through the gig economy and platforms like Mechanical Turk. Ball writes that the metaverse will be “the next great labour platform,” while Zuckerberg said it will give “people access to jobs and more places, no matter where they live.”
In the context of Silicon Valley’s reliance on contract workers and outsourcing, that’s not a good thing to hear. Gig workers have warned that lowering their working standards was the first step in an effort to do so in the wider economy, and the workplace technologies heralded by the metaverse’s champions could be key to enabling the next big assault on workers’ rights.
Returning to play-to-earn, similar schemes have been around for years. In the early 2000s, workers primarily in the Global South engaged in gold farming where they would earn in-game currency in massive multiplayer online games, then sell it to players often located in Western markets. Ball uses this as an example of how work can be done in the metaverse, but as Merchant said in a recent interview on Tech Won’t Save Us, this is a vision where existing “disparities will be enshrined and transported over to this virtual world.” Their vision for virtual labor might sound promising, but it would make it even harder for workers to demand their rights be respected and have any leverage over their employers.
The Metaverse Must Be Stopped
The metaverse is an expansive vision that would see digital technologies colonize many more aspects of our lives. As we saw during the pandemic, tech companies’ revenues and profits soar when we’re forced to spend more time using digital services instead of being out in the physical world. But while it won’t soon reach the scale contained in the visions of Ball and Zuckerberg — if it ever does — it could be a reality for gamers and in certain workplaces much sooner.
Video game companies have successfully altered how games are made and the monetization strategies embedded within them for years to maximize profits, while employers can easily make specific services mandatory for workplace use, as they did with Slack and Zoom, giving them a foothold to expand into the consumer market. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t avenues to stop them.
In 2017, EA was forced to withdraw microtransactions and loot boxes from Star Wars Battlefront II after anger from players because the monetization features were designed in a “pay-to-win” fashion that incentivized people to spend real money. Following the controversy there were also regulatory responses in a number of countries, and Gamesindustry.biz contributing editor Rob Fahey believes play-to-earn games could face similar scrutiny. Beyond that, there is a growing tech labor movement that is using its collective power to push back on its employers when they take actions that cross ethical lines or put their colleagues at risk.
Silicon Valley tends to feel it can do whatever it wants. Its major companies have ignored regulations with little consequence and shaped how we communicate to increase profits despite causing social harm. As the pressure for the metaverse to become reality grows, we need to be ready to oppose it. But we should also start thinking beyond the tech industry’s visions for technological solutions that serve their business interests and instead imagine how tech can be developed for the public good.