State of SEEN — Deep Dive #7
Our deep dive series aims to provide in-depth analysis on important trends happening in the NFT space.
This week’s article was written by doublewordscore
Brave New (Virtual) World
Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One depicts a physical world entrenched in chaos, a dystopian cesspool of crime, corruption, and poverty. By wearing a headset and tactile gloves, people are momentarily able to escape this despair by entering the aptly named “Oasis,” a virtual world that extolls the beauty and ideals of what society could be.
The film planted the seed of a completely immersive virtual world, with visual and tactile experiences, all completely rendered in real time but unfortunately, we are not technologically at that stage quite yet. Virtual worlds are still in their infancy as far as their development, but many platforms are starting to emerge, specifically on Ethereum. The blockchain, with its public, immutable ledger of data, makes for an ideal backbone for which virtual worlds can exist on.
For the most part, the core gameplay and experience is somewhat similar across each platform: users can freely move around, interact with people, buy land, build on top of that land, and participate in the mini-economies of those worlds. However, each platform carries its own nuances, stylistic differences, and niche communities that allow them to coexist simultaneously.
Cryptovoxels is a virtual world whose community primarily focuses on digital art and culture. Scattered all around the Voxels metaverse are art galleries, independent museums, concert venues, and movie theaters. Some prominent buildings include the Museum of Crypto Art, as well Pascal Boyart’s Underground Sistine Chapel, a stunning combination of art and architecture. SEEN HAUS, a NFT marketplace, has built a three-story museum within the Voxels metaverse showing featured artists sold on their platform and offers a separate gallery for collectors.
Somnium Space, a competing virtual world, is not only accessible via web browser, but like Ready Player One, can be accessed through major VR headsets such as Rift, VIVE, & Oculus. Of all the metaverses, the Somnium geography and art direction bears the closest resemblance to the real world, with waterfront and island properties fetching a premium against their in-land counterparts. Community members regularly host events including things like treasure hunts, virtual concerts, and charity fundraisers.
Somnium’s competitive advantage is their focus on asset monetization: they feature their own in-game currency ($CUBE) and also allows users to tokenize their avatars, the first metaverse to do so. Their development of their own economy has encouraged creative parcel owners to design their buildings to provide utility and earn passive income.
Decentraland is a metaverse known for its immersive gaming applications that encourages social interaction. There are numerous minigames, casinos, and arcades scattered through DCL’s virtual world amongst the 90,000 different plots of LAND. Bars, lounges, and coffee shops exist for players to have meaningful conversation with each other, highlighting the social aspect of virtual worlds.
Besides the general growth of cryptocurrencies, it’s plausible to suggest that virtual worlds have gained increased traction with its player base because of the pandemic. After all, many people have been stuck inside, quarantined for months on end. There’s been a culture shift where people are getting more and more comfortable communicating via virtual means like zoom.
Tom Boellstorff, professor of digital anthropology at University of California-Irvine, believes that Zoom conferencing sessions are a just a transitional communications medium that will eventually lead to fully immersive virtual world interactions.
“Online sociality is a set of cultures that can be just as real as what is in the physical world,” Boellstroff explains. “Virtual space gives you a sense of a shared space that you don’t get with a phone call. I find engaging through an avatar less stressful than Zoom.”
It’s likely no coincidence that Larva Labs, the famed developers behind NFT projects Cryptopunks & Autoglyphs, went in a completely different direction for their third project, Meebits; Larva Labs designed a collection of fully rendered 3D character models ranging from humans to robots to elephants. These characters are decorated with a diverse set of clothing items like hoodies and suits, and charming accessories such as headphones and beanies. Following the release, Larva Labs subtly hinted that these Meebits were created with virtual worlds in mind: they act as perfect digital avatars, a highly recognizable representation of their users. They provide their users with unique, distinguishable personalities.
Users can choose what avatars closely reflect their own personality, or perhaps more accurately, what they want the perception of their personality to be. This ability to embody an aspiration, rather than one that mirrors their real-world self is a theme that Wade Watts, the protagonist of Ready Player One, constantly harps on. The freedom to be anyone and to do anything, Watts believes, serves as the remedy for sociological imbalances and justices in the world.
Boellstroff offers a course that analyzes behavioral differences between a person’s online persona against their real life counterpart. He’s explored case studies that demonstrate the empowerment that online, anonymous personas can provide for people with physical disabilities or socioeconomic challenges.
Of course, I would be remiss to look past the rather obvious pothole with virtual worlds and anonymous personas. After all, Internet culture is an unmonitored playground for nefarious characters with insidious intentions, as social media has quite easily demonstrated; within this context, it would be woefully naive of me to assume general human decency on a base level.
In this respect, our protagonist in Ready Player One is clearly wrong: “Bullies couldn’t pelt me with spitballs, give me atomic wedgies, or pummel me by the bike rack after school,” Wade describes. “No one could even touch me. In here, I was safe.”
Unlike Wade’s claims, virtual worlds are not immune to the toxicity that infects the real world; Internet trolls are rampant and it’s arguable that anonymity propagates poor behavior. Bad people will be bad people regardless if it’s a real or virtual world.
Still, the development of these virtual world platforms creates exciting opportunities and implications and it would be disappointing to allow a few bad actors to undermine what could be a prosperous ecosystem. The past year’s growth for metaverses like Cryptovoxels and Decentraland suggest that users can not only coexist with each other, but thrive. For the most part, the communities within the virtual worlds have highlighted the strong potential for this area to succeed long term.