The Metaverse: How Video Games Are Offering An Alternative To Isolation

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A concept from science fiction imagined by gamers for years is finally here, thanks to the internet and the global pandemic. (Bruno Fahy/Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images)
A concept from science fiction imagined by gamers for years is finally here, thanks to the internet and the global pandemic. (Bruno Fahy/Belga Mag/AFP/Getty Images)

If you have the luck of gainful employment that you can do remotely and a strong internet connection, you’re probably suffering from video conference fatigue right now.

But numbers from the video game industry suggest that being tired of screen time hasn’t stopped people from using those same laptops, mobile devices and monitors to play games.

Verizon has reported a 75% increase in video gaming. The CEO of game-streaming company Twitch says the platform has seen a 57% jump in traffic, while Nintendo’s latest earnings shot up in part because of one of the most talked-about games during quarantine: Animal Crossing.

Why is gaming doing so well? Beyond the obvious answer that people stuck at home have more time to spend on entertainment media, gaming can give people a shared experience when they feel isolated.

Connected gaming, where people can play together in real time via the internet, is not a new concept. Even before dial-up internet gave us chat rooms, science fiction writers were talking about a future where we would all strap a computer to our faces to frolic in fantastical digital landscapes.

Neal Stephenson called this the metaverse in 1992, while William Gibson discussed the idea of virtual reality in 1984’s “Neuromancer.” Even as far back as 1933, Laurence Manning told a story of people connecting themselves to machines.

In the last several years, a combination of graphics processing technology, high-speed internet access, social media and the continued trend of younger people being more connected to devices spurred the $30 billion annual gaming industry to try harder than ever to bring these sci-fi ideas into reality. Combine that with many states’ stay-at-home orders, and the gaming industry might be in the midst of an inflection point — where industry experiments with the “metaverse” are seeing a jump in adoption.

Recent examples include a god-like Travis Scott rapping for 12 million fans inside the video game Fortnite at the same time (and 27 million in the space of a few days).

Travis Scott and Fortnite is just a mainstream example of a conversation about virtual concerts that are growing more serious. Remember the world’s mix of horror and curiosity at hologram Tupac? In 2020, it’s become a viable business model. And just this week, a Democratic strategist suggested plopping a massive holographic Joe Biden into the grand canyon for the party’s national convention.

There are definitely pitfalls in moving more and more of our activities and our interactions online. Video gaming addiction is a growing issue around the world. And virtual reality, which Silicon Valley was bullish on just a few years ago, remains niche in a moment where it should be taking off.

It’s also very early to say which industries will see an extended bump from the pandemic and which won’t. But during a period of tamping down our IRL social interactions, it’s likely the idea of the metaverse — a shared environment where we can not just play games, but watch concerts, interact with each other and more — might be gaining traction and users.

Cassady Rosenblum produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku RayBen Brock Johnson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on May 13, 2020.


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Ben Brock Johnson Executive Producer, Podcasts
Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR and co-host of the podcast Endless Thread.



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