Weddings in World of Warcraft, concerts in Second Life, theme parks in Minecraft, sometimes our digital selves go through experiences we are not privy to in the offline world. Digitally, we can experience many things, and have done so especially during the pandemic. Parallel to this trend, the metaverse is normalizing gaming, and integrating it with other features to make it more accessible for a large audience. Even though the metaverse is a business model and a vision, it’s also indicative of a cultural shift.
Digital entertainment is on the rise, even more so because the real world can be boring. Many of us have ordinary lives, and turn to digital entertainment as an uplifting, immersive experience. While some live in thriving cities like Tokyo or New York, where there is constant entertainment and a vibrant night life, others live in small communities. Many of us would love to live somewhere else, but will probably never have the chance. Having grown up in a small rural town, I can relate to this, and recently stumbled upon a term for it – Reality Privilege.
The term Reality Privilege was coined by Marc Andreessen (inspired by Beau Cronin). In an interview Andreesen states: ‘A small percent of people live in a real-world environment that is rich, even overflowing, with glorious substance, beautiful settings, plentiful stimulation, and many fascinating people to talk to, and to work with, and to date. […] Everyone else, the vast majority of humanity, lacks Reality Privilege—their online world is, or will be, immeasurably richer and more fulfilling than most of the physical and social environment around them in the quote-unquote real world.’
The concept of Reality Privilege resonates with me. I can relate it easily to my studies on the virtual tourism that games and immersive experiences offer.. Not everyone has the chance to live in Manhattan. You may not be able to visit the Akropolis in real life, but you can in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
Furthermore, games and the metaverse have the potential to offer us something more than reality, something otherworldly. Think of the Ariana Grande Rift Tour in Fortnite where she is a soaring, magical, augmented celebrity – something of a superhero that we can look up to. She dances in the galaxy, flies like a fairy, wears ice cristals and seems simply out of this world. Players can approach her avatar, and this experience is deeply embodied. It’s a kind of digital closeness, even though Ariana Grande isn’t performing live in Fortnite. It’s a simulation, but it’s powerful. And if you are a fan who is not able to see Ariana Grande in real life, this is the next best thing.
The identity that we have as a fan extends to online worlds then, and the same goes for other aspects of our identity. Reality Privilege can be an odd term then– reality and digital culture are connected. Both are two sides of the same coin. In his article on reality privilege, Rex Woodbury sees great potential for the metaverse to add to our reality, for instance through VR and AR: ‘Imagine diversity and inclusion training where you can experience being in another person’s shoes. Imagine your child learning about the solar system by traveling through outer space. Imagine your doctor explaining your upcoming surgery by showing you what’s going on inside your body.’ The point be, digital spaces add to our reality and enhance it.
More than Escapism
The term Reality Privilege also led to controversy. ‘A wild virtual fantasy’, ‘these people must be stopped’, users have posted on Reddit. Is the idea of Reality Privilege not distracting us from what we need to do in real life? We need to create a more equal, sustainable world. Potential digital spaces cannot replace this.
Through the backdoor, a term like Reality Privilege raises an old worry that digital worlds are just escapism. In Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boelstorff already wrote in 2008: ‘Such negative views of virtual worlds fail to consider forms of escapism in the actual world, from rituals to amusement parks to daydreaming: the degree to which an activity is “escapist” is independent of whether it is virtual or actual. Avoiding narratives of dystopia or utopia in discussing virtual worlds is a challenge, one rooted in a history of technology which, as many have noted, has been characterized by wild optimism and wild pessimism’. But Boelstorff already showed 15 years ago that virtual worlds add to our sense of life and community.
Digital culture extends our reality. Instead of disapproving of digital spaces, we should study and learn what users do in them and learn in them. We should also consider what they add to our identity. In Reality Is Broken, Jane McGonigal writes about the power and attraction of games and virtual experiences: ‘Games are providing rewards that reality is not.’
Specifically in games and play we get to be ourselves, develop our skills, get a sense of our own capabilities and engages in activities. Digital experiences and communities make us connect and empathize with people in new ways. They extend our social reality, politics and even activism. There is a new wave of climate criticism and activism in games, for instance. Virtual worlds can make a difference, without being labelled as edu-games or serious games.
For many years, users have created rich digital worlds and economies in Second Life, World of Warcraft and The Sims. They love to play because it’s active and creative entertainment, and because they can play with others. The metaverse is not new in facilitating this vision. One major concern is that the metaverses that Big Tech works towards today are hardly user-driven. These privatized metaverses have the potential to create new inequalities, because they are created for profit.
A New Reality
Reality Privilege is easy to picture – if I’m bored offline, and have access to very little, I can go online and get what I want. Community, entertainment, everything. That being said, our reality is far more nuanced. If we live remotely, we are probably the least likely to have a stable network to connect to the metaverse at all. Perhaps Reality Privilege is not the best term to describe this cultural momentum, since Reality Privilege is tied up with real social issues and problems. Why not simply speak of privilege, and be more nuanced about the why and how?
That being said, I’m curious to see how virtual worlds keep adding to our lives. We have the chance to shape these worlds in a different way, a better way. Right now, we still look at them as a mediation of events and gaming. As stated in this podcast by The Verge, a typical metaverse concert will have mini-games to keep users busy, bouncing avatars and flashy aesthetics. It’s a cross-over of concerts and gaming. Soon these events will have their own unique language and aesthetics. They will become a medium in their own right, like film and television.
I’m curious how this will develop in the near future and whether we can go beyond our reality, our biases and our identity. Metaverses such as Horizon and Fortnite are presented to us in a magical and promising way, but creating inclusive and inspiring digital worlds is an incredibly huge challenge. Only time will tell if they are up to the task.