"Isn't it sad," said a generation of frustrated parents, "that you let yourself waste away in front of the computer on such a beautiful day?
"It's just so unnatural to play these video games for hours on end, all holed up in the dark, slack-jawed and bleary eyed. Don't you want to go outside and play … in the real world?"
I suspect the retort playing out in kids' minds these days is sharper than ever.
"Isn't it tragic," they might think, "that so many people toil through life, committed to the drudgery of their intractable conditions, when whole other worlds of opportunity and fulfillment rest just a click away?
"Isn't it sad how billions of people, trapped by the geographic, socio-economic, environmental or physical constraints of this world, have never been exposed to the existence of others—worlds where the playing field is leveled, where you can be who you want to be, and rise according to your merit?"
After all, these teenagers might not have the authority to turn down the green beans at dinner, but when they log back onto their computer, they could very reasonably command whole armies of adults all over the world.
Not just in the sense that they give orders and the adults follow, but that those adults might do so in order to earn the respect of their virtual superiors.
The fact that performance in these virtual worlds fulfills some of our most basic human needs—status and connection, for starters—is enough to take them seriously.
The potential that they could form the economic basis to fulfill the rest of them—food, clothing, shelter and meaning—ought to stop you cold.
Over the past 20 years or so, these virtual worlds have risen from the pages of geeky, basement-dwelling science fiction and fantasy to a multi-billion-dollar industry that has nearly consumed the lives of millions of its players.
None of this is to say that these virtual worlds are utopias, where everyone plays by the rules and earns their fair share.
In some ways, probably driven by the anonymity the internet provides, they're even crueler and lead to more disparate outcomes of fortune than we see here in the "real" world.
No, it’s not 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.
Consider this passage from Vulture:
What a game as maximalist and exemplary as World of Warcraft is best suited to reveal is the degree to which status is in the eye of the beholder: There are gamers who view themselves in the light of the game, and once there are enough of them, they constitute a self-sufficient context in which they become the central figures, the successes, by playing. … When you consider how tightly rationed status is outside the game, how unclear the rules are, how loosely achievement is tied to recognition, how many credentials and connections and how much unpleasantness are required to level up there, it seems like a bargain.
World of Warcraft is one of the best-known and most popular examples of a virtual world. While not the most open-ended game world (Second Life and Eve Online are both closer to truly free worlds where every action's value is purely in the eye of the human inhabitants), WoW at its peak was the most densely populated virtual landscape, home to more than 12 million players.
WoW's game mechanics give rise to complicated social structures in which a player can prove his worth and elevate his status through his contribution to the group: Maybe he's a gifted warrior whose presence protects the group and helps it acquire more resources. Maybe he's a skilled leader who knows how to motivate and inspire the group to overcome great obstacles. Or maybe he's just a funny, likeable guy who makes life a little more enjoyable for everyone else.
Its open-ended world spawned all sorts of outcomes that were never written in its code: People met, fell in love and were married. Likewise, grudges spawned inside the game led to altercations out of it. Subcultures and cultural myths took hold. And whether the game's creators liked it or not (they didn't), a black market sprung up to allow for illicit trading of the game’s precious resources.
Was the game world real?
Does it matter?
There was a market for virtual gold, a purely algorithmic currency good for nothing but buying virtual swords, shields and potions.
None of it was real. Except for the people who believed it was.
Brock Pierce was one of them. Wired’s piece on his rise and fall as a teenage virtual world business magnate is worth reading in its entirety, but I will quote liberally from it here:
In the real world Pierce was just a 19-year-old washed-up child actor living far from home and going slowly broke. But in Norrath he was none of that. In Norrath he was the dark-elf wizard Athrex, and he was a champion.
Soon enough, amid the daily grind of his obsession, he would see in the game itself a way out of the bleak hole he had fallen into. He would take a clear-eyed, calculating look at what he and his fellow players had been doing all those months—at the countless hours they’d given over to the pursuit of purely virtual but implacably scarce commodities—and he would recognize it not just for the underexploited form of productivity it was but for the highly profitable commercial enterprise it might sustain. He would spend the next half decade bringing that business to life.
There are people who might pay as much as $1,800 for an eight-piece suit of Skyshatter chain mail made entirely of fiction and code. Or that there are millions more—players of World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, EverQuest, EVE Online, and other massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs, or MMOs)—who have given other players real money in exchange for the virtual weapons, armor, currencies, and other sought-after items around which these games revolve. Or that despite the game companies' widespread prohibition of such transactions, their number has grown to support an estimated $2 billion annual trade, a half dozen multimillion-dollar online retail businesses, and an enormous Chinese workforce earning 30 cents an hour playing MMOs and harvesting treasure to supply the major retailers.
Brock Pierce's business came to a crashing halt as the game companies fought back. But the marketplace for intangible items crafted from ones and zeroes is more ferocious than ever: In 2017, sales of virtual goods accounted for $80 billion of the gaming industry's total revenue of $103 billion.
Why would anyone buy a virtual shirt?
For the same reasons we buy every shirt we own after our first one. To express ourselves. To demonstrate the social group to which we belong. To signal our personal taste or personal achievement. To find a mate, or stand out from the crowd.
Why are there handbags that sell for tens of thousands of dollars when a paper bag from Trader Joe's fills the same function?
Why does one painting sell for $80 million when a nearly identical arrangement of color and form could only be worth $80?
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.
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.
Andrew Wilson, CEO of Electronic Arts and one of the most powerful people in the gaming industry, sees a similar future:
From the minute I get up in the morning, everything I do has an impact on my gaming life, both discrete and indiscrete. The amount of eggs I have in my internet-enabled fridge might mean my Sims are better off in my game. That length of distance I drive in my Tesla on the way to work might mean that I get more juice in Need for Speed. If I go to soccer practice in the afternoon, by virtue of internet-enabled soccer boots, that might give me juice or new cards in my FIFA product. This world where games and life start to blend I think really comes into play in the not-too-distant future, and almost certainly by 2021.
What is real?
Does it matter?
These are not merely games. They are worlds that augment and expand upon our own.
Soon, if not today, 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?
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.
A 2008 study of behavior in World of Warcraft found the average player spent two to three hours a day inside the game's world—every day of the year. Conservatively, that's more than 700 hours a year.
As games become even more comprehensive, more immersive and more populated, it seems a safe bet that those numbers will only rise. 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 some other yet-to-be-minted buzzword, what's increasingly clear is this: Reality is in the eye of the marketplace, and the marketplace is going virtual.