Over the past 20 years, give or take, virtual worlds have risen from the pages of science fiction and fantasy to a multi-billion-dollar industry that has slowly but surely become a large part of the lives of millions of people. Where they were once curiosities, they are now mainstays. Or at the very least, approaching that level. The fact that performance in these virtual worlds fulfills some of our most basic human needs (status, connection, power) we need to take them seriously.
And with their rise, questions around what they are vs. what they could be spring up. The debate over their social value rages as people seek to understand the dangers of virtual spaces. And few if any of these spaces are utopian. Indeed, probably driven by the anonymity the internet provides, they’re perhaps crueler than the physical world and lead to more disparate outcomes of fortune. But then, it’s not really about whether or not they’re better worlds. It’s about the fact that they are, or at least will become, worlds, and the distinction between the real and the virtual will likely cease to exist.
What a games and, increasingly, non-gaming VR environments are best suited to reveal is the degree to which social constructs such as status or morality are in the eye of the beholder. When you consider how tightly rationed progress is, be it true status or power, outside the game, how unclear the rules are, how loosely achievement is tied to recognition, and how much unpleasantness are required to be successful, the work we put into our virtual worlds seems like a bargain.
World of Warcraft is the primary example, but there are others. Destiny for example. These are open-ended worlds that have spawned all sorts of outcomes that were never written in its code: People met, fell in love, and were married. Rivalries and vendettas formed. Subcultures and cultural myths have started to take hold. Line between the game world and outside of it have blurred. Which begs the question, is the game world real? Does it matter? Are the purchases we make with virtual currencies in a virtual world any less rational than the other purchases we make? Ultimately, it is irrelevant – we make purchases and barter in digital worlds for the same reasons we buy every shirt we own after our first. To show off our wealth. To express ourselves. To demonstrate the social group to which we belong. To signal our personal taste or personal achievement. To find a mate. Value is for the marketplace to decide.
Martin Amor, CEO and founder of Hoard, understands this. His company’s goal is to enable true individual ownership of virtual goods and to create a marketplace for those goods that spans across all games and into the “real” world.
To quote him:
I started this company because I believe that there should be no distinction between virtual and real-world assets. I want it to be generally accepted that the time and effort spent on acquiring these items have real-world value. My goal is to be able to play a game one night, then the next morning go to a Starbucks and buy a coffee with some of the loot of that game.
The money with which he’ll pay for the coffee, is it real? Does it matter?
Eventually, sooner rather than later most likely, brands will be forced to reckon with a multiversal reality. It will start out of pure necessity — how do you reach your customers when they spend dozens of hours a week inside virtual worlds where you are nowhere to be found? But next will come a realization of the sheer expanse of opportunity, a new frontier perhaps unlike any we’ve ever seen. New worlds completely open to the development of ideas and experiences, unencumbered by the physical constraints of the “real” one, with a marketplace as ravenous as any we’ve ever seen.
As games become even more comprehensive, more immersive, and more populated, it seems a safe bet that the lines that still exist between realities will continue to blur to the point of nonexistence. In some cases, given the economic opportunity at play, it’s possible to imagine a full-time virtual existence being more than enough to pay the bills. Whether it’s virtual reality, or augmented reality, or something we haven’t even conceived of yet, what’s increasingly clear is this: Reality is in the eye of the marketplace, and the marketplace is going virtual.