We all know about the internet and we have become familiar with the word Cyberspace, but what is the Metaverse, and what difference could it make to our lives?
As with a previous subject, Critical Race Theory, this is a topic that I felt I needed to know more about, so this article is the product of the research I have done over the last week or so. I am sharing it with you because I am reasonably sure that the Metaverse will be looming big in our lives within the next five years. It is all so new and untested that I cannot draw too many conclusions from what I have found, but I do have some questions that I believe need answering… from a Christian perspective. I am a theologian and not a sociologist or a futurist, and so my concerns are mainly around the effect the Metaverse is likely to have on our spiritual lives.
What is The Metaverse?
I guess that place to start is to define what the term Metaverse means.
In the fewest words possible, the Metaverse is a virtual-reality cyberspace in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and with other users. It is an online 3D universe that continues to exist in cyberspace whether or not individuals are logged into it.
This digital world consists of whatever its creators choose to make it and will include office space, learning areas, entertainment, commerce, sport, and anything else imaginable. Its inhabitants are digital representations of real people called Avatars, which can move, talk, teleport from one place to another, change form, and eventually even feel, smell, and taste.
There are already several versions of a Metaverse in existence, but for simplicity sake I refer to The Metaverse throughout this article. Several big tech and social media corporations are hoping to align their offerings so that users can pass seamlessly from one to the other in what will amount to one giant Metaverse.
Second Life is a virtual platform that probably gives the best current presentation of what the Metaverse will be like. It is only one of many in existence already and although it is controversial, some say it is the very first example of a metaverse. It is a vast 3D-generated virtual world filled with user-generated content where people can interact with each other in real-time and also hosts a thriving in-world economy. The platform was officially launched to the public by Linden Lab in 2003. In Second Life residents (users) can do almost anything people do in real life, such as watching movies, listening to music, playing games, going to parties, buying or selling stuff, and creating new content for the virtual world. If you would like to have a look around Second Life then click on https://secondlife.com/
Components of The Metaverse
Some of the kinds of spaces of a digital universe (metaverse) are:
Gaming spaces where people represented by their avatars, can battle each other, conquer armies, build cities, race cars, solve puzzles, go on mythical adventures and so on. Many of these types of games already have versions in the Metaverse, such as:
- Axie Infinity: A play-to-earn Metaverse game that features fantastical animals called Axies which can be bred, raised, collected, and traded.
- Sandbox: A software package consisting of three primary products: Modeling objects and avatars in 3D, a Marketplace that allows people to sell their works to other users in its Metaverse, and a Game Maker, where players create 3D games without writing any code.
- Minecraft: A game where players can compete against the artificial intelligence game engine or each other. They can cooperate or just hang out and build things. In Creative mode, they can build their own world and game, and invite other people to join.
- Fortnite: Another game where the basic purpose is to remain the last one standing while fighting against other players. Competitors can collect items, explore the world and build structures to gain an upper hand in battle. The Metaverse potential of Fortnite is the worldbuilding possibilities in its Creative Mode, as well as the ability to trade looted and self-made items.
Education and e-learning spaces: The Metaverse provides the platform for eLearning to transform from online, limited interaction offerings, to immersive group and individual learning experiences. In a Metaverse education space, students can interact with a lecturer, the material, and each other while still enjoying the benefits of individualised learning paths and rates of progress.
Social spaces: All the major social platforms, such as Facebook, are adapting their offerings to the enhanced conditions offered by the Metaverse. Facebook (Meta) has already stated that it wants to be the “next evolution of social connection.” It will use virtual reality, augmented reality, smart displays, and other technologies to bring people together under a single overarching platform run by the company.
Business spaces: The COVID-19 lockdowns necessitated the acceleration of an existing trend to decentralisation work-from-home office culture. The Metaverse will have spaces dedicated to individual companies, conferences, think tanks, and so on.
Commerce spaces: Every major retail outlet will be represented in the Metaverse in one form or another. For instance, Nike plans on selling sneakers that the Avatars can wear (no kidding!) and which the actual human can view in 3D space and then order to be delivered. Payment in the Metaverse will be by some form of cryptocurrency (such as bitcoin). The actual items traded in the Metaverse will be in the form of Non-fungible Tokens (NFTs), a sort of digital asset registered against the name of the purchaser.
Other spaces in the Metaverse will include, concerts, political rallies, digital land acquisition and development, churches, etc. etc.
Why we should pay attention now
Hey, that all sounds like a giant computer game, so why should I pay any attention to it? Well, in January 2022, Microsoft announced that it would be investing $70 billion in acquiring Activision Blizzard, the enormous video game developer and publisher, as a means of securing a major spot in the Metaverse. Meta, the company that owns Facebook, has so far invested $10 billion into acquiring and developing hardware and software that provides Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) capabilities within the Metaverse. Google is redeveloping its AR offerings and in addition, is investing $39.5 million in a private equity fund for all Metaverse projects. Nvidia is planning to become a key part of the Metaverse’s infrastructure by developing tools, like Omniverse, to help developers bring their visions to life. It also intends to develop digital avatars that people can use to represent themselves in the Metaverse. In November 2021, Unity Software acquired Weta Digital for over $1.6 billion, a company whose innovative Visual Effects tools will help Unity Software to further develop its Real-time 3D technology for use within the Metaverse. Shopify plans to offer a virtual shopping experience in the Metaverse where people can view the products virtually before placing an order for delivery to their homes. Meta (Facebook) also has big plans for e-commerce in the Metaverse. Roblox is interested in the social side of the Metaverse, which will include players using virtual avatars to communicate and build social circles.
Qualcomm has stated that its collaboration with Microsoft represents a shared commitment to Extended Reality and the Metaverse, and that it is focused on inspiring more people to set their sights on this ‘new version of the internet’.
Now all of these giant companies, and others, are investing so much of their time and resources to the Metaverse because they see it as a huge opportunity to influence, exploit and make digital buckets full of money! We need to be paying attention too… but for very different reasons.
Potential dangers of The Metaverse
Over the last few years, we have all seen and suffered from the control and influence of social media. In the wrong hands, something like the Metaverse could be used to manipulate, indoctrinate and even control our lives. Facebook, Google, and others already have access to an alarming amount of information about every user and the Metaverse will multiply the magnitude of this problem by ten. Currently, some virtual worlds are developed on an open-source platform and owned by all contributors through a blockchain system. These will be more or less democratic in nature, but the ones owned by big tech companies and consortiums will be like digital dictatorships and so the risk of control and manipulation will be very high.
Some psychologists are warning that an immersive and seductively engaging Metaverse may well have at least two extremely negative societal effects:
- It may well create dependency and a form of addiction through Dopamine infusions to the brain whenever someone encounters a new and exciting aspect of the Metaverse or wins a battle or buys something.
- It may also encourage dissociation from reality and confusion of identity and personality. This is quite likely in those whose everyday life experiences are unpleasant, boring, or meaningless.
What did Jesus say?
John 17 records the Lord Jesus’ wonderful prayer for his disciples of all ages. Verses 16-17 read: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth”. From this comes the well-known phrase, ‘we are in the world but not of it’ and reinforcing this idea are the verses that refer to disciples as ‘aliens and strangers’ (Hebrews 11:13, 1 Peter 2:11). It seems obvious that anything that embeds us further into ‘the world’ is a denial of Jesus’ will for us.
Materialism has this effect as does the all-consuming distraction of a digital world built undeniably on the principles and values of Godless hedonism and self-centredness.
The 2018 movie ‘Ready Player One’ starts with the statement, “People come to the Oasis (their name for the Metaverse) for all the things they can do, but they stay because of all the things they can be”. The storyline then shows that this ‘being’ is not a good, wholesome, or God-honouring transformation.
Another obvious danger to Christian values is the focus on ‘self’ imposed by the Metaverse, which in essence is all about what I choose, what I explore, what I experience, and what I want.
Philippians 2:3-4 says ‘Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others’.
1 Corinthians 10:24: ‘Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbour’.
A theological consideration is that the Metaverse construct moves human spiritual composition into even further conflation with the mind.
We are made in the image of God as triune beings consisting of physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions. SO much of today’s Christianity centres on the mental dimension to the detriment of the spiritual. Some ministers present saving faith as a mental ascent and a decision of the will instead of the metaphysical spiritual miracle of rebirth that it actually is. Church services so often exclusively point us horizontally to one another rather than vertically towards God. In the Metaverse it is all about horizontal interactions and experiences and church services presented in a Metaverse religious space will have singing, listening, possibly sharing, and so on, but no ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.
You see, the Avatars that gather for a church service in the Metaverse are spiritless projections of human egos, but the Holy Spirit dwells in regenerate human gatherings, not in a collection of digital constructs.
The church is a supernatural extended family, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Already so many seeker-sensitive and institutional churches offer consumeristic benefits of connections, teaching, and so on, but little exposure to the Holy Spirit and his ministry. I am concerned for the authenticity and validity of a ‘church’ located in cyberspace where the members are just sprit-less Avatars. However, Metaverse church services will have a seductive attractional power. People who attend, via their Avatar, will be exposed to the world’s most entertaining and emotionally and mentally stimulating teaching, music, and creative arts, while in the real world the local church offerings are all pretty ordinary. We experienced something of this during the COVID-19 lockdown when we had to rely on services streamed from churches or canned presentations of past productions. The temptation was to hop onto the slick presentations by world-famous church teachers and musicians rather than stick with our humble home church offerings. Of course, many megachurches have capitalised on this form of Christian consumerism for decades.
I am also concerned for Christian families, and indeed families in general. Technology and social media have already waged a deadly war on family communications and relationships. Teens sit in the lounge with their noses buried in their cellphones and parents don’t do much better. They eat and sleep in the same physical space but live lives separated from family love and community. I also feel that the Metaverse will further exacerbate the division between age groups and the marginalisation of the elderly that we currently experience. Older people will probably not adapt to the new technologies and mindset required to ‘live’ in the Metaverse and will become helpless spectators of the meta-folly of their younger loved ones.
I now know more about the Metaverse than I did two weeks ago and I hope that I have conveyed to you its main features. Some aspects of the Metaverse may well benefit humanity, but it seems to me that it will, in the main, be a retrogressive step down the path of human history. In particular, it will pose challenges and threats to the Christian belief system and way of life. I have some more extreme thoughts concerning the role it may play in the descent towards apocalypse, but I will refrain from airing these until I have a far better grasp on just how the Metaverse will develop and evolve.