In a move that feels like a last-ditch moment of futurism cosplay, Facebook announced in October 2021 that the new meta in social media wars was to rebrand as — simply — Meta. No longer is Mark Zuckerberg in the business of fondling your personal data in the real world; instead, he will do it in a virtual world of his own. Speaking with a Stepford Wife-like cadence, he shares his plans to drag us along a voyage into the metaverse, a hyper-stimulating, bubblegum-colored virtual existence where he can fulfill the next phase of his stereotypical sci-fi villainhood.
The idea isn’t foreign. Just a few years prior, Steven Spielberg, with about a fraction of heart usually felt in his world-building blockbusters, makes a film called Ready Player One. As things often go in teen dystopias, the story opens with a tear into a fantastic world beyond the main teen’s more mundane existence. Here, we port through Wade Watts’ VR headset into OASIS, a place where the poor people get poorer for a chance at glory in a false, make-believe curated world using a false, make-believe curated avatar.
The source material — a 2011 novel written by Ernest Cline — fashions its premise to that of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. OASIS’ creator and overseer, James Halliday (played by Mark Rylance), alerts his players posthumously. Unlock the game’s principal ‘easter egg,’ and get the proverbial keys to the castle. In children’s literature, this is a golden ticket moment. In UX-tongue, we call this “feedback loop,” a quirk in human design that our friend, Mark, built his dirty empire on.
Criticisms about toxic, male-dominated fandoms aside (Vox’s Constance Grady made a great primer about Cline’s unfortunate unraveling of toxic geekdom, a.k.a. Gamergate), Ready Player One peers into an imminent future, one where our virtual lives further blur with real life. Merely four years after the film’s release, that future is already within arm’s length.
The metaverse isn’t a new concept. Like many of Meta’s products, it is a direct ripoff of an existing thing. Video games have long stood proxies for more typical human interactions. Game lobbies are the new rec-room where the watercooler eavesdrops about our lives outside of work, what TV series we’re currently obsessed with, where we’re headed with our lives, the whole nine yards. Gaming is intrinsically social, from hyper-casual games you can play right on your browser, to the high-octane action shooters you play on a stacked gaming PC.
The length of the COVID-19 pandemic proved an opportune stretch of time to see what the metaverse might look like. Interestingly, however, it doesn’t seem like Meta has the lion’s share.
Both Minecraft and Fortnite present attributes of a life-inside-a-game conceit center to the premise of both the metaverse and Ready Player One. The latter seems more in line with the nostalgia, fandom-pandering antics we’ve seen in the film. Collaborating with various I.P.s, artists, and brands, Fortnite is shaping up to be like our version of OASIS. Want to kick it with a squad as Naruto characters? You can. Want to see Ariana Grande perform inside the game? You can do that, too.
While VR technology is a few generations away from touch-sensitive bodysuits and treadmills, the way things are feels eerily similar. With the advent of digital currencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs), too, it seems likely that the metaverse is well upon us, with or without Zuckerberg. If Ready Player One should be our primary indication, the only silver lining is we get to live out our favorite pieces of pop culture.
Which brings me: when are we booking our virtual trip to The Overlook Hotel?