I have spent large portions of my life in virtual worlds. I’ve played video games since I was six; as a millennial, I’ve lived online since adolescence; and I’ve been reporting on games and gaming culture for 16 years. I have been to Iceland for an annual gathering of the players of EVE Online, an online spaceship game whose virtual politics, friendships and rivalries are as real as anything that exists outside its digital universe. I’ve seen companies make millions, then billions from selling virtual clothes and items to players eager to decorate their virtual selves. I’ve encountered people who met in digital worlds and got married in the real one, who have formed some of their most significant relationships and had meaningful life experiences in, well … people used to call it cyberspace, but the current buzzword is “the metaverse”.

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Ask 50 people what the metaverse means, right now, and you’ll get 50 different answers. If a metaverse is where the real and virtual worlds collide, then Instagram is a metaverse: you create an avatar, curate your image, and use it to interact with other people. What everyone seems to agree on, however, is that it’s worth money. Epic Games and the recently rebranded Facebook are investing billions a year in this idea. When Microsoft bought video game publisher Activision for $70bn last week, it was described as “a bet on the metaverse”.

The tech world seems to be leaning towards some kind of early 00s conception of wearing a VR headset and haptic suit and driving a flying car towards your perfect pretend mansion in a soothingly sanitised alternate reality, where you can have anything you want as long as you can pay for it. Look at Mark Zuckerberg’s now-infamous presentation of the future of his company, with its bland cartoonish avatars and emptily pleasant environments. It is the future as envisioned by someone with precious little imagination.

I do not deny that some people want this vision. Ready Player One was a runaway hit. But the metaverse as envisioned by the people currently investing in it – by tech billionaires such as Zuckerberg and Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, by techbro hucksters selling astonishingly ugly generative-art NFTs and using words like “cryptoverse” – can only be described as spiritually bereft. It holds no interest for me.

Virtual worlds can be incredibly liberating. The promise of cyberspace, right back to its inception, has been that it makes us all equal, allowing us to be judged not by our physical presentation or limitations, but by what’s inside our heads, by how we want to be seen. The dream is of a virtual place where the hierarchies and limitations of the real world fall away, where the nerdy dweeb can be the hero, where the impoverished and bored can get away from their reality and live somewhere more exciting, more rewarding.

Anyone who is marginalised in the real world, though, knows that this is not how things go down. Virtual worlds are not inherently any better than the real one. Worker exploitation exists in them – look at World of Warcraft, in which Venezuelans farm currency to sell to first-world players, or Roblox, in which young game developers have put in long hours on unregulated projects for little reward. Misogyny and homophobia exist in them, too – ask anyone who’s ever had the misfortune to sound female on voice chat while playing a multiplayer shooter, or be non-gender-conforming on Twitch. As for racism, well – it is alive and well, and seemingly emboldened, in the digital world.

Ready Player One envisioned a metaverse based on what one nerd thought was cool in the 80s, which is depressingly close to what’s happening now.
Ready Player One envisioned a metaverse based on what one nerd thought was cool in the 80s, which is depressingly close to what’s happening now. Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

The idea that a metaverse will magically solve any of these problems is a total fantasy. All that they really do is reflect the people that make them and spend time in them. Unfortunately, nothing I have experienced in any virtual world makes me feel good about the idea of the metaverse – because it is being constructed by people to whom the problems of the real world are mostly invisible. Unless companies put immense efforts into dismantling prejudices and unconscious biases, they are thoughtlessly replicated in whatever they create. Nobody has yet found a way to effectively moderate anywhere online to keep it free from abuse and toxicity and manipulation by bad actors. Given what’s happened with Facebook, do you trust Meta with this responsibility? Do you trust Microsoft with it?

And what will the metaverse look like? Who gets to decide? Outside the sanitised aesthetic of the Zuckerverse (and old virtual-world standby Second Life), the main artistic references we currently have are either the gaudiness of Fortnite or Roblox or the no-holds-barred neon anime nightmare that is VRChat. Then there are the seemingly endless runs of vapid NFT art, many of which are tied to their own promised metaverses, drawing in their buyers with the promise of community. Every time I see a newly minted set of images (well, links to images) go up for sale I’m like, really? ANOTHER series of rad skulls? It is all just so powerfully adolescent, and yet apparently, they continually sell out. These are currently the people determining what the future might look like. It is depressing.

I would feel better about the idea of the metaverse if it wasn’t currently dominated by companies and disaster capitalists trying to figure out a way to make more money as the real world’s resources are dwindling. The metaverse as envisioned by these people, by the tech giants, is not some promising new frontier for humanity. It is another place to spend money on things, except in this place the empty promise that buying stuff will make you happy is left even more exposed by the fact that the things in question do not physically exist.

More Than Gamers is one of many sets of NFTs tied to planned ‘metaverses’. What’s the betting most of them never materialise?
More Than Gamers is one of many sets of NFTs tied to planned ‘metaverses’. What’s the betting most of them never materialise? Photograph: morethangamersnft.io

As far as I can work out, the idea is to take the principle of artificial scarcity to an absurdist extreme – to make you want things you absolutely don’t need. The problem is not that I think this won’t work. The problem is that I think it will. The current NFT gold rush proves that people will pay tens of thousands of dollars for links to jpegs of monkeys generated by a computer, and honestly it is eroding my faith in humanity. What gaping deficiency are we living with that makes us feel the need to spend serious money on tokens that prove ownership of a procedurally generated image, just to feel part of something? This is all happening, of course, while the Earth continues to heat up, and at enormous environmental cost. I can’t help but wonder if these giant companies are so intent on selling us and the markets on the idea of a virtual future in order to distract us all from what they are doing to the real one.

I have seen what virtual worlds can do for people. I have spent my entire adult life reporting on them, and what people do in them and the meaning that they find there. So the fact that I’m now the one standing here saying that we don’t want this, feels significant. Meta has patented technology that could track what you look at and how your body moves in virtual reality in order to target ads at you. Is that the future of video games and all the other virtual places where we spend time – to have our attention continually tracked and monetised, even more so than it is in real life?

The virtual worlds of games and the early internet used to be an escape from the inequalities and injustices of the real one. To see the tendrils of big tech and social media extending towards the places that have been a refuge for me and millions of others is disturbing. I don’t trust these people with the future. The more I hear about the metaverse, the less I want to do with it.