The Metaverse Is Already Here — It’s Minecraft

Via debugger, an article on Minecraft, an existing metaverse:

What will “the metaverse” look like?

Last week, we got a glimpse of Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for it, in his video presentation. If you didn’t see it, CNET has a highlights reel: It begins with Zuckerberg being raptured into his metaverse apartment, where he picks out an all-black outfit, then heads to a virtual meeting with Facebook colleagues — at which they play cards, marvel at 3D art, and phase Kitty-Pryde-style through their surroundings. Later on Zuckerberg shows off the future of work in Facebook’s AR metaverse, with screens afloat in the air.

It looked pretty much like every demo you see of “our AR/VR future”…

…Which is to say, it was soul-deadeningly antiseptic, and molded entirely from the plasticine of the corporate imagination. (A more succinct verdict: “It looks like junk,” wrote Ethan Zuckerman, who built a metaverse 27 years ago. “His superhero secret lair looks out over a paradise island that’s almost entirely static. There’s the nominal motion of waves, but none of the foliage moves. It’s tropical wallpaper pasted to virtual windows.”) Despite Facebook’s attempts to make things look jolly, and despite the bazillions of dollars they probably spent on this demo, it was almost experimentally lifeless.

Big tech firms are desperate to launch a metaverse. They keep on promising it’ll be here — some day soon! It’ll transform daily life, letting you hang out with friends — any day now! You’ll see art, go to live events, be creative, play games, run businesses — like, soon, we mean it!

Of course, these tech giants all want to be the earliest entrant, praying they’ll lock in first-mover advantage and build Hotel-Californian network effects. They want to create the metaverse, a walled-garden from which they can harvest all the profits.

This is why they’re doomed to build such dreary, mall-like wares.

The truth is, a thriving metaverse already exists. It’s incredibly high-functioning, with millions of people immersed in it for hours a day. In this metaverse, people have built uncountable custom worlds, and generated god knows how many profitable businesses and six-figure careers. Yet this terrain looks absolutely nothing the like one Zuckerberg showed off.

It’s Minecraft, of course.

It’s worth looking at the elements of Minecraft’s success — because it shows you all the ways that big-tech barons will almost certainly do it wrong.

So: What makes Minecraft such a great metaverse?

1) It’s decentralized — nobody owns *the* Minecraft metaverse

Facebook wants to build the metaverse. But Minecraft’s killer app is that there is no single place you need to log into.

Nope: Anyone can create a Minecraft world. You can create a multiplayer world on your laptop, then invite anyone on your local wi-fi to join. Or for a couple bucks a month you could rent a server from scores (hundreds?) of online providers, and hang out with far-flung, remote friends. You could make that server private; you could leave it open so randos can crash. Your call! You could try to cadge an invite to the private servers of famous YouTubers. Or you could visit the truly massive, open servers where tens of thousands of other players compete in minigames, like Hypixel.

The point is, the designers at Mojang — the firm that makes Minecraft, now owned by Microsoft — did not seek to create a single locked-in community where everyone has to go. Instead, they let people create their own.

With Minecraft, you make a metaverse, not the metaverse.

This is why these worlds work so well. If a metaverse is yours, you set the rules of engagement. You can allow open-ended activity; you can create your own property-rights systems; you can ban malign activity, or encourage malign activity. (It is why, as the scholar Seth Frey told me, Minecraft is a deeply useful tool for training oneself in self-governance.) If you don’t like one world, another beckons.

If big tech firms create tools for making truly decentralized metaversii, that’d be rad. But I doubt they will: They’re looking for a new monopoly. They’ll build honeypots.

2) Minecraft is incredibly immersive — yet uses low-fi tech

Modern “metaverse” hype assumes that digital reality is only truly immersive if you’re in VR or AR, with a gewgaw strapped to your head. As Minecraft has shown, this is nonsense.

Now, I don’t want to throw too much shade on AR and VR. They’re both pretty cool forms of media, and will get cheaper and less heavy on one’s head, so at some point (years from now) you’ll be able to wear it with comfort for more than a half hour.

But the point is, Minecraft has proven you can have incredibly immersive, delightful, soul-stirring metaverses… which you access via regular-ass old computer screens.

And I do mean old. Minecraft has conquered the planet because it doesn’t require any new expensive hardware. Quite the opposite: It’ll run on positively junky old PCs. I recently installed Minecraft on a 2010 Thinkpad running Ubuntu; it worked amazingly well, even logged into busy multiplayer worlds.

Better yet, Mojang has preserved older versions of Minecraft. You can, at any instant, play a version of Minecraft from, say, 2013. Did you and your friend years ago create a cool world that you still want visit, every so often? You can. Minecraft metaverses don’t break; the tech is backwards compatible.

3) Minecraft *requires* you to be creative

In one sense, this point is banal: Anyone who looks at Minecraft for seventeen seconds can see how creative it is.

But crucially, with Minecraft the creativity isn’t just an optional, nice-to-have add-on. Mojang didn’t create Minecraft and say, “okay, you can generate worlds, and if you want you can create stuff inside them.”

No, Minecraft is essentially unplayable if you don’t create things. The most basic acts in “survival” mode — making shelter, making weapons to defend yourself, growing food — require you to figure out how to creatively recombine materials in the world. On an even fancier level, the game has a logic-wiring system that makes it Turing complete. People have crafted everything from replicas of their houses to fully-functioning games of Tetris to libraries of banned books to, of course, uncountable hang-out zones for their friends.

This is quite the opposite approach of most corporate “metaverses” I’ve seen. With them, the act of creation — allowing participants to make their own stuff — is a second-order concern: Nice to have, but often hobbled because the company was mostly focused on how to slap money out of their users. Helping people make their own stuff didn’t seem Job One. Now, Facebook does seem to be working on creation tools for its users; we’ll see how good and open-ended these are. (I’ll be particularly interested to see how Facebook reacts when people build “FUCK FACEBOOK” structures inside Facebook’s metaverse. Mojang cannot stop me from creating “MOJANG SUCKS” inside a Minecraft world that I create, because of course I run it.)

Mojang thus far hasn’t made microtransactions (“Click here to buy this power-up!”) a big part of Minecraft, because they don’t need to. Like normal capitalists, they just charge you a fair price for a good product: You pay $27 to buy the game. Mojang makes money on Day One, so they can focus on making the game awesome, instead of giving you the game for free and then constantly shaking you upside-down to see what money falls out.

4) It’s open and hackable

Minecraft is really easy to hack. On several levels! If you’re good with graphic design, for example, you can make skins that change the appearance of your character. You can use the game’s built-in scripting language to create custom devices. Or if you know a bit of coding, you can build mods that create entirely new objects in the game or change the gameplay.

This hackability is part of why the game has remained so vibrant: Players are constantly revitalizing Minecraft and inventing new things you can do inside it. Third-party folks build tools like skin editors to make it easier for players to be creative.

As a piece of software, Minecraft isn’t open-source, but it’s very friable and gas-permeable around the edges. Mojang was willing to give their players a lot of control, and it’s part of why people are devoted to the game.

I could be wrong, but I honestly can’t imagine many of the big tech metaverses allowing this sort of Xtreme tinkerability.

Plus, this hackability and openness of Minecraft is partly why…

5) Minecraft is glitchy

Minecraft isn’t glossy and smooth. It’s glitchy as hell.

When you’re playing on a server with a lot of people, you get lag; when you install a new mod, it might be a crashy, bug-ridden mess. When my son recently tried out a new server world on the wrong version of Minecraft, it made some strange off-by-one coding error (i.e. it accidentally gave object #1 the properties of object #2, and object #2 the properties of object #3, and so on). So the chickens were rendered as dolphins (which flopped around on dry ground), and skeleton enemies were rendered as trees, so the trees were attacking them. (“I’m wearing food,” as my son commented drily, when he looked at his armor.)

The point is, because it’s easy to modify and to build one’s own worlds, it’s also easy to break Minecraft. Players are, unexpectedly, mostly fine with this. They know it’s the downside of creativity and autonomy. If you’re in an environment that’s truly yours to control, you can screw it up. With great power comes great responsibility. But if you really mess things up, you can always just revert to a vanilla Minecraft install, or to a saved backup of your world.

A really interesting metaverse — one in which you’d want to spent hours, days, years — is messy. It’s not the Stepford airport lounge that Zuckerberg seems determined to build.

6) There’s a reason to be there

People play Minecraft because it’s a game. It was designed for a specific purpose — to give you an environment with blocks you could recombine, so that you could engage in a “survival” challenge (build things to keep yourself alive while monsters attack) or simply to build Lego-style creations (in the no-monsters “creative” mode).

Because it’s a game, people know why they’re using it, when they use Minecraft. There’s a reason to be there: to play the game! Once people showed up, they discovered Minecraft was open-ended enough that they could do all sorts of things with it — hang out with friends, build their own sports and combat, create cool machines, record animated series on YouTube, etc. But they wouldn’t have arrived in the first place if there wasn’t a game to play. (A similar thing can be said of World of Warcraft or dozens of other online multiplayer games that people use as hangouts with their far-flung friends.)

This is another thing that makes these corporate dreams of an open-ended “social” metaverse ring so hollow. Facebook can build their world, but there’s… no reason for anyone to use it, really. If “Meta” is just for hanging out with friends online? Nobody needs that.

For an online 3D space to thrive, there has to be a reason to be there.

[Note: I added this item as an update to the original piece, after having a conversation with Fred Benenson about this piece online.]

7) It spawns tons of economic activity

People make loads of money off Minecraft and its culture. Some build server-worlds so enticing people pay to hang out. Others become talented Minecraft creators, then amass huge and profitable followings on YouTube or Twitch or Discord teaching their skills. Some become elite players in the many forms of gaming that have built up around Minecraft — games which, I should point out, weren’t invented by Mojang; they were invented by folks who inhabit the gameworld. Are you into NFTs? People are already devising how to graft that onto Minecraft servers.

The point is: Many of the things that big tech moguls and VCs breathlessly predict will one day happen in their Lysol-dead, fish-eyed metaverses?

They’re already happening in Minecraft.

Some people in tech get this. John Carmack, who consults for Facebook on Oculus, recently said…

Minecraft and Fortnite are closer to the metaverse than anything Facebook has built, or frankly, is likely to build, unless we wind up getting really lucky.”

If you really wanted to build a thriving metaverse, where people can truly make it their own — so much so that they voluntarily spend scores of hours there every month — you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

You can just learn from Minecraft.

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