Note this is an excerpt from my masters dissertation An Inquiry into Designing Metaverses (2021), this is a study into designing and creating multiplayer virtual worlds and connecting those worlds into a wider virtual universe known as a metaverse. Melonking.net hosts a number of these excerpts broken into sections of particular interests. You can find all sections here or feel free to contact me if you would like a copy of the entire original document.
The culture of a community exists in a feedback loop with the structure that supports it. Here we will briefly discuss the relevance of culture within a virtual world. The goals, interests, and commonalities that communities share will come from how they can interact with the platform on which their community exists. The study of online communities is well established in both virtual worlds and social media (T.L. Taylor, 2002) (Tierney, 2013).
When considering the kind of culture that is being formed by a virtual world or metaverse, the key question is, what does this platform mean to the people who comprise this culture?
“The Third Place” is a term coined in 1982 by Raymon Oldenburg. He defined the home as the first place and an office or worksite as the second place. The third place is a social space, a place where work is not performed and there is general equality between the people who use the space (Oldenburg & Brissett, 1982). A third place encourages individual self-expression, but there is no focus on any one individual. Some examples of third places in society are pubs, churches, and parks, however, many virtual worlds, social networks, and online chat rooms also act as third places for people.
When considering the culture that will evolve within a space, it is necessary to take into account how that space will be used. The structure needed to support a virtual third place will be different to the structure required for a virtual workplace and, likewise, the culture that structure produces will be different.
An important question this raises is how does a virtual world define the players within it? How is a person influenced by that world? The answer is different for every virtual world. In a metaverse, a player has the potential to become anything offered by each of its worlds, as well as by any number of subsets or remixes of those worlds. However, in many cases a player will also want to define what others become by making their own worlds and having other players visit them.
Moderation is the art of guiding a community culture to grow in such a way that is healthy and beneficial to all its members. The job of a moderator is the same as the host of a party; the moderator ensures maximum enjoyment with minimal visible effort. One simple example of moderation in Snow Crash is avatar size. Who or what stops a player from making their avatar ridiculously large? Is that something that should or could be regulated? An obvious answer might be that it should; however, suggesting such a thing assumes a great deal about the design of the worlds and the communities within them. A metaverse is not bound by real world physics, so what right does anyone have to say you can’t be a giant?
There are two kinds of moderation that take place in any online community: hard moderation and soft moderation. Hard moderation is the formal rule structure and management of the community. An example of this is when a person does something that is explicitly forbidden within the community and is punished for it by a moderator. Soft moderation is enforced by subtle community cues; for example, in a community dedicated to gardening, a person would be unlikely to suddenly start talking about airplane engine design. Soft moderation is enforced by the assumed norms and expectations of the community as a whole.
Hard moderation is expensive in time and effort and can also be inaccurate. If it’s badly enforced, hard moderation could punish those who do not deserve it and miss those who do. In any community, it’s preferable to favour soft moderation over hard moderation. However, soft moderation can be elusive; it relies on trust within the community. Often the harder the moderation, the less trust will be present, and the weaker the impact of soft moderation.
Cultures have expectations around behaviour in certain spaces. These expectations are formed as the culture evolves and discovers its own values and faults. In a new metaverse this culture has not yet formed. How can the expectations of a culture be moderated if they don’t yet exist? It’s very possible that for the culture of a metaverse to grow it must be allowed to make mistakes. In this case, the purpose of moderation is to watch and learn from those mistakes, then decide how to moderate in the future.
If a metaverse becomes a ubiquitous utility, what rights do the population have to gain access? Typically, these kinds of rights are enforced by city or government regulations on public spaces and businesses.
Imagine a metaverse has become very popular, with many businesses and services available. A local government deems that disabled people, such as the blind, must be able to access the metaverse. If the metaverse is totally decentralised, would individuals with limited technical world-creation experience be responsible for making their spaces meet regulations?
Additionally, what computing resources would be required to access the metaverse? Would a person have the right to access a computer in order to access the metaverse? Who would be responsible for supplying that computer? The metaverse designers would be responsible for creating the metaverse’s structure. Such a structure may heavily impact on the kind of computing resources needed to run it and, therefore, its accessibility.
If a metaverse does become a ubiquitous public utility this topic will rapidly become an issue for everyone involved. It’s possible these questions cannot be answered until the problem itself is present; nevertheless, this whole area warrants further study.
It is worth mentioning that while virtual worlds can be big, metaverses can be exponentially bigger if they combine many large virtual worlds. The size of the metaverse can grow, however, the number of players within it will always be limited by the number of humans willing to use the metaverse. This poses a significant design issue.
The larger the metaverse grows, in terms of physical space, the more dispersed players will become. This tends to result in large numbers of players gathering in particular areas, leaving the rest of the metaverse abandoned. Maintaining abandoned spaces can be costly for developers, but it also damages the community. This happens because a player exploring a world that they perceive as empty may conclude that the world is unpopular because it is flawed or unappealing.
This same issue occurs when developers attempt to release new platforms or versions of their products. Imagine a popular virtual world that is running on older technology. A developer might wish to release a new virtual world to replace it. In most cases, this will result in a split, with some players staying on the old world, while others leave for the new world. This split reduces the population count and leaves both the old and new worlds feeling more abandoned.
This section explores some of the issues related to how technology or structure needs to be considered when designing a metaverse.
Creating a platform that’s easy and cheap enough to develop and operate is vital to a metaverse’s success. When approaching size, we have to assume that the metaverse can and will grow indefinitely, in terms of the player-content generated within the metaverse, as well as the complexity of that content.
Growth occurs in two forms: as a volume of content and as a temporal evolution. This temporal evolution takes the form of player technical and cultural expectations. Put in more practical words, in year one a player might be very happy with certain technical or graphical limitations. However, ten years later those same limitations may have become totally unacceptable.
When designing the structure of a metaverse, it must not only be able to handle an infinite amount of content expansion at the time of its creation, but also an infinite expansion of player expectations over time.
In practice, infinite expansion is not possible. There will always be technical limits to what a system can handle. Managing the balance between those limits and the player’s expectations is one of the key factors in creating a metaverse.
The web is a good example of a relatively infinitely expandable system. It is not known if the World Wide Web will ever become obsolete. As new technologies and expectations appear they can be added to the web. This addition is possible because the web is highly modular and decentralised. However, this decentralisation also leaves the web at risk of being inconsistent in its design.
This consistency takes the form of visual styles, player interactions, technology standards, and physics. It is typically the case that the more consistency is enforced by the metaverse designer, the more rigid and less modular the metaverses structure will become. This leads to a possible dissonance between the designer’s vision of the metaverse and the infinitely scalable structure required to make a metaverse.
There are some key takeaways from this speculation, the main one being a metaverse cannot depend on any single service or server and will need to be made up of a large number of independent services, with redundancy and overlap between them.
Oldenburg, R., & Brissett, D. (1982). The Third Place. Qualitative Sociology, 5(4), 265–284.
T.L. Taylor. (2002). Chapter 3 Living Digitally: Embodiment in Virtual Worlds. In The Social Life of Avatars.
Tierney, T. (2013). The public space of social media: Connected cultures of the network society. Routledge.