In 2021, the metaverse garnered renewed attention when Facebook changed its name to Meta. Generally speaking, the metaverse is often described as a virtual world you can explore using virtual reality (VR), but this paints a vague image. In this series, we will explain the fundamentals of the metaverse through an academic lens, focusing on topics like video games, archives, AI, and education.
In this first installment, Professor Akinori Nakamura of the College of Image Arts and Sciences at Ritsumeikan University takes a closer look at the metaverse in terms of video games and esports.
[Key Points of this Article]
● What is the metaverse?
● The freedom to adopt a non-physical identity
● Is “Animal Crossing” a metaverse?
● Esports and the metaverse today
What is the definition of metaverse? The key is social activities.
So, what does metaverse mean in the first place? There are not many people who can answer this question. As evidence of this, even Wikipedia states that the idea of the metaverse is so vague that there is no clear definition of it.
According to Professor Nakamura, “Although it is extremely difficult to define the metaverse, it is better to think of it as a form of society than as a technology. Personally, I define the metaverse as ‘a world where people can naturally engage in social activities in a computer-generated virtual space.’”
Social activities include things like communication with others, work, and in some cases, the exchange of money and other things of value. Behind the rapid rise of the metaverse—a place separate from reality (e.g., a virtual space) where products and services that enable natural social activities are provided—are advances in the technological infrastructure that supports this world.
“Until now, even if a virtual space could be created, there were various technical hurdles that prevented people from ‘staying’ there for a long period of time. However, with the dramatic improvement of cross reality (XR) technologies such as VR and AR, it is now possible to relatively easily spend time in virtual spaces. People can now naturally spend long periods of time in virtual spaces instead of the 15 minutes that used to be considered the maximum limit.
We now spend much of our day using the internet to engage in social activities. We may not be aware that we are operating in virtual spaces, but in a broader sense, we are already living in a metaverse-like space,” explains Professor Nakamura.
Future of the metaverse: Will we see a world in which identity is completely separate from the physical body?
As XR technology continues to advance, a time will soon come when we will be able to experience a high-resolution virtual world through a head-mounted display (HMD). Convenient devices like eyeglasses are no longer impractical either. What kind of world will it be when the metaverse becomes commonplace?
“If we can experience virtual spaces with a quality comparable to what we see with the naked eye, then we will consider those as part of society itself. This is the kind of world that those trying to bring the metaverse to the masses aspire to. Underlying this is an awareness that the gender and race we are born with as well as our own abilities may be holding us back.
So, all you need to do is change your gender, appearance, and other attributes to suit your preferences and lead a social life with your reconstructed identity. This is the essence of metaverse as defined by those who could be described as metaverse fundamentalists," says Professor Nakamura.
Some people will be able to operate with multiple identities beyond the predispositions they were born with. This, in turn, can serve as the starting point for their social lives. So, does this mean that we could possibly witness a future in which ultimate diversity is realized by way of the metaverse?
“Even today, I believe that having multiple identities is becoming more natural in virtual spaces and the online world. But at this point in time, our identities are still tied to our physical selves and our relationships.
In the next generation of the metaverse, I think we might be able to go beyond this and become able to operate as individuals whose identities lie in the metaverse, completely separate from our physical bodies,” remarks Professor Nakamura.
If this is what the future holds, what kind of identity would you create for yourself? This kind of what-if scenario also arouses a philosophical interest.
The intersection of metaverse-like spaces and the real world as seen from the “Animal Crossing” boom
Let's look a more familiar example to understand where the metaverse stands today. How does Professor Nakamura view the connection between the metaverse and Nintendo's video game “Animal Crossing,” which experienced a worldwide boom during the COVID-19 pandemic?
“Communicating online while playing video games like ‘Animal Crossing’ can be considered one example of an advanced society.
Many players are not just communicating, they are engaging in ‘activities’ like creating and sharing wallpapers. Let’s say for a moment that a person like this decides to open a shop inside the game world. Then, if they ask other players who want their wallpapers to send money to their account, this would be a complete metaverse. (But this is just conjecture because players are currently prohibited from selling items in ‘Animal Crossing.’)
There are many negative impressions of gaming, with issues like violence being talked about, and video game addiction being recognized as a disorder. However, if you know how to use them properly and practice that when you play video games, you can have a very heartwarming experience, and these experienced can substantially improve your life. I think the social phenomenon of ‘Animal Crossing’ backs this up, and the research has also confirmed this. The question is how can we build on the positive aspects that video games can generate. In the end, whether we are talking about video games or the metaverse, it all depends on how you use it,” says Professor Nakamura.
“Animal Crossing” is an example of how the medium of a video game can be used to naturally present the positive aspects of a metaverse-like world. The fact that such an experience has been provided to nearly 40 million people around the world is sure to hold significant meaning in the context of the widespread adoption of the metaverse going forward.
Elite esports players are the “athletes” of the metaverse
Esports is also attracting attention as a form of social activity in a virtual space. How does Professor Nakamura view esports in the context of the metaverse?
“In terms of the metaverse in the broader sense, I think you could say that esports players are people who can demonstrate their ‘athletic ability’ in metaverse-like spaces.
Currently, there are systems in place to recognize esports players based on their performance within an organization, and in some cases, they can win large cash prizes. Because players operate using their gaming handles, they never reveal their real names or origins, and in some cases, they appear completely removed from their true identities. What’s more, they are able to engage in economic activities, so except for one condition, we can consider them to be ‘human resources active in the metaverse.’
What is that one condition? It is the fact that esports players do not live in the virtual world, but operate under a dual identity (monetary rewards are earned by their real-world selves, not their virtual ones). In the future, when we reach a point where we can live in the metaverse off the money earned by our identities that exist entirely within the metaverse, then I believe we will truly become ‘people of the metaverse.’
Just as there are star athletes in the real world, the best athletes in the metaverse are the esports stars, explains Professor Nakamura.
Athletes, not professional gamers. As identities become more materialized, it is possible that our virtual existence will come to be seen as more "real.”
How long will it take for esports and NFTs to merge?
Data generated with blockchain technology, like some of the big prizes in esports competitions and non-fungible tokens (NFTs: unique digital data that cannot be duplicated or copied), could also play an important role in the advancement of the metaverse and esports. What is the current state of this value proposition as a crucial element in social activity?
Professor Nakamura explains: “In Japan today, NFTs and esports games are quite divergent. My impression is that both the gaming industry and the user community still have a strong aversion to NFTs.
On the other hand, the NFT market in places like Vietnam and the Philippine are highly active. China still takes a strict stance on NFTs to the point that it has banned all virtual currencies. I think there is also a lot of pushback in the United States. I think we will need to take a closer look to see how this plays out in the future as the NFT and blockchain bubbles are starting to burst.
On the other hand, if transactions like NFTs come to be accepted naturally by society at large, and if a generation emerges that accepts NFTs as just another way to exchange value, then we will see a world in which there is no aversion to games that incorporate NFTs. Once this generation develops a certain amount of economic power, it is possible that some people may decide to trade in NFTs and exchange items for cash.”
As Professor Nakamura points out, in the near future, it might be normal to see people using NFTs and the blockchain to exchange rare and valuable items, such as virtual in-game items, to gain wealth. In this series, we will continue to discuss the fundamentals of the metaverse as we look at other topics like cultural assets and archives, AI, and education. Please stay tuned for the next installment.
Akinori Nakamura earned his PhD from the Graduate School of International Development at Nagoya University. After teaching at the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies at Waseda University, he joined the College of Policy Science at Ritsumeikan University as an associate professor, and is now a professor in the College of Image Arts and Sciences. He has published numerous books including China Game Industrial History (Gz Brain). He regularly contributes columns on all topics related to the gaming industry.