Origin of the metaverse and pop culture

history of metavers, metavers and pop culture, history and pop culture of metavers
Antoine Charneau - 31/01/2022

Background and origin of the metaverse

In the early 1990s, the virtual reality sector was still not very popular with consumers, and was rather linked to scientific research.

It was further democratised through the cinema and the publication of books that helped to educate the population. Let's go back to the origin of the metaverse and the pop culture that has developed around it.

It was during this period that the term metaverse appeared. 

As a reminder, this term appeared in 1992 with the novel The Virtual Samurai, written by Neal Stephenson. Science fiction has always been a particularly popular subject in novels, films and video games. Indeed, it allows for a hypothesis of the future of humanity and leaves a certain freedom to its author. Sometimes, certain novels are adapted for dark rooms. This is what we will discover in this new article, as films and video games echo the term metaverse.

We invite you to think about the definition of immersive technologies before you start reading.

The first metavers: origin of the metavers and pop culture

Active World

3 years after the release of Stephenson's novel, the online virtual world Active World was launched. After choosing their name, users log in and can explore a virtual world that others have built. Based entirely on the novel Snow Crash, this first approach to the metaverse concept allows users to own worlds and universes, and develop custom 3D content. It also incorporates basic web browsing, voice chat and instant messaging capabilities.

Second World

In 1997, Canal + Multimedia, a subsidiary of Canal +, developed "Deuxième Monde". This virtual universe is considered more as an immersion software in a virtual reality than as a real video game. It was the first time in a 3D universe that shops were entirely custom-made for brands. Second World was stopped four years later by editorial choice.

Second Life madness

In 2003, it was "Second Life appeared. The game developed by Linden Lab allows users to have a second life in a virtual world. Thus, "residents" can explore the world, meet other players, socialise, participate in individual and collective activities, build, create, buy and exchange virtual goods and services among themselves. The game is used for many purposes (list not exhaustive):

  • Meetings and relationships: it is an immersive social platform that encourages meetings and socialising.
  • Education: used by many institutions such as colleges, universities, bookstores or even companies to train for teaching or conduct training sessions.
  • Religion and thought groups: a social platform encourages people to meet, exchange and form groups according to their ideals
  • Workplace solutions: create virtual workplaces, develop new prototypes, simulate business processes.
  • Events and influence: creating events, promoting your company or products within the virtual world.

This phenomenon has grown very quickly, and by 2013 it had about one million regular users.

Numerous criticisms against it

This game has faced a lot of criticism. Indeed, like social networks, these virtual worlds are veritable data libraries. In September 2006, Linden Lab revealed that its Second Life database had been compromised and that customer information had probably been accessed.

In addition, a virtual world where users are given freedom often leads to inappropriate behaviour. Some people look for activities that they could do in our real world, such as socialising or exploring. On the other hand, others turn to actions that they could not reproduce in the physical world. In France, a conservative family union, Familles de France, sued Linden Lab in June 2007. It accused Second Life of giving minors access to sexual content, including bondage, zoophilia and scatophilia. But also to gambling and advertisements for alcohol, drugs or tobacco.

Between fraud, marketing abuses, technical problems, pornography, regulation and user safety, these virtual worlds are still difficult to regulate and control. They can easily give way to abuses that raise real questions about security and ethics.

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Credit: Time Magazine and Second Life

The new generation: origin of the metaverse and pop culture

From Second Life to Roblox

A new video game was launched in 2006, this time for children and teenagers. The game is called Robloxa "sandbox" type game. The aim is to build games and share them with the community so that they can be visited. To do this, the game provides a creation system based on the Lua language. Thus, players can browse a large repertoire of games among friends. Many types have become popular: simulation, obstacle course, hide-and-seek, escape game and many others.

As of August 2020, Roblox reported as many as 164 million monthly active users, and more than half were children under the age of 16 in the US. Roblox is a free-to-play game, which derives its revenue from in-game purchases available via a virtual currency called Robux. This currency can be obtained by purchasing it with real money or by creating games. The more successful they are, the more Robux they are likely to earn. Thus, all transactions go through this virtual currency, in particular to modify the appearance of one's character by buying various items such as hats and clothes. In 2020, Roblox decided to invest in one of its sources of revenue: avatars. Indeed, they have bought the start-up Loom.aiwhich specialises in the creation of realistic avatars.

Their technology allows :

  • automatic learning: an avatar is able to learn and reproduce the personality traits of its user.
  • generate a 3D avatar from a 2D photo

So this is what could be used within the metaverse.

A world of virtual turpitude

These social platforms allow different groups of users to come together and share their ideals. As we have already seen with Second Life, these games where freedom is the order of the day often give rise to controversy.

This is also the case for Roblox, with 3 points in particular:

  • Activism: an NBC News investigation revealed that about 100 accounts were linked to extremist or even neo-Nazi politics. In addition, some extremist role-playing and scenario communities on Roblox have caused controversy.
  • Inappropriate content: a 2020 investigation by Fast Company found that sexual content was still prevalent on Roblox. Attempts by moderators to remove it were compared to a "mole game". In addition, the platform has received significant criticism for the presence of sexually explicit games and images on it, despite the fact that such content is prohibited.
  • Microtransactions: Roblox was criticised for the ease with which children could spend large amounts of money through microtransactions. Often unbeknownst to their parents, this spending led to claims for refunds. Sometimes the company would delete the accounts of players who made these requests.

However, the publisher has received many positive reviews. It is known for its anti-racism work and its support for the Black Lives Matters movement. It has also put in place many ways to create a safe environment for its young community:

  • discussion filtering system
  • employing 1,600 people to moderate
  • parental controlservice

Thus, the situation has generally improved in recent years.

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Credit: CNEWS and Fortnite

The Fortnite giant

Fortnite is an online game developed by Epic Games, which was first released in beta in 2011. It takes the form of different game modes that share the same general gameplay and game engine. It has three different game modes:

  • Save the World (2011): Allows one or more players to advance through a story where the goal is to eliminate creatures and rescue humans.
  • Battle Royale (2017): Allows players to compete alone or in teams, on a map that shrinks as the game progresses so that there is only one winner.
  • Creative (2018) Creative: allows players to create their own worlds within the game.

Fortnite was born in a period of great excitement for the Battle Royale genre. 

And while both games have been a success for Epic Games, Fortnite Battle Royale has become a social phenomenon. Indeed, it has attracted more than 125 million players in less than a year and generated hundreds of millions of dollars per month. Furthermore, Epic Games announced in 2019 that Fortnite had 250 million players, twice as many as in June 2018.

Late and unprecedented controversies

  • The first one comes in 2019 against its random reward system. A lootbox can be bought with real money. It contains an unknown loot, the value of which varies greatly. This practice, which can be found in particular on the famous FIFA, could be described as gambling since it involves so much chance. The public authorities have moreover the subject.
  • The second controversy occurred in 2020. Apple and then Google removed the game from their application shop. At issue was the fact that the game allowed for in-app purchases to be made without going through the payment platform. The charging of a commission cannot therefore take place and generates conflicts between the three giants. 
  • In November 2021, China made Fortnite inaccessible as a result of its policy of regulatory tightening of digital uses.

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Film illustrations: origin of the metaverse and pop culture

In the 21st century, there are many works that echo the metaverse. Some have been particularly successful.

Matrix

Released in 1999 for the first part, it is a particularly well-known film. This science fiction film features humans in a virtual simulation called "The Matrix". This environment has been created by intelligent machines that want to enslave humanity. When the main protagonist finds out about this, he starts a rebellion. 

This dystopian film has generated many theses, notably that reality is hidden.

Black Mirror 

This series asks questions about the unexpected consequences that new technologies could have. Released in 2011, its title refers to the omnipresence of screens in our societies, from a dystopian and satirical angle. Innovation is often praised for its qualities and advantages. This series, on the other hand, stands on the other side of the fence to question and warn. Several episodes such as Test phase, San Junipero or and Striking Vipers echo virtual reality or a form of metaverse.

Ready Player One

Released in 2018, this science fiction film is an adaptation of the novel Player One by Ernest Cline. In a chaotic world ravaged by war, famine and climate change, the survivors take refuge in a virtual universe: the Oasis. Over time, it has become a real human society that replaces the real world. Accessible through a virtual reality headset, players can move around, chat and do many activities through their avatar. This global game is both exciting and expensive, if you want to acquire accessories and weapons that are essential to win the game. The goal is to find 3 keys to obtain the Easter egg left by the creator within the game. Once obtained, the winner becomes the owner of the Oasis and pockets 500 billion dollars.

A world to dream about

Between books, video games or films, virtual reality and the metaverse are very popular subjects as the possibilities are endless. These virtual universes can be shaped at the will of their creators, to escape a dull or boring real world. While many works focus on the innovative and beneficial nature of this technology, others - such as Black Mirror - question the limits and dangers.

The various controversies surrounding safety or the technical aspect raise questions about the feasibility of such an environment in our modern societies.

Will we see in the next few years a metavers according to Meta's vision?

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