Infinite ‘Verse: Who gets to own the new worlds and galaxies we create online?


Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk are self-styled billionaire-kings of an internet based on extractivist data-mining, malign surveillance and algorithmic manipulation. Zuckerberg wants to get in on the ground level of the emergent ‘metaverse’, and stake it out as corporate territory on behalf of investors and advertisers. Musk meanwhile has his eye on corporate domination and monopoly, with his malfunctioning bid to co-opt and control the ‘public square’ of Twitter discourse. The social media business model is dying because it was always ‘free’ to the user – but the social costs are ever more apparent. Twitter and Facebook require eyeballs. But people do not want to just watch, consume and broadcast online. They want to cooperate – to play; to talk, tell stories, and create. Musk and Zuckerberg plan to own the spaces where this happens.

The future of gaming is not necessarily about what players are prepared to spend, but where they want to spend time. The shared worlds of online gaming already offer obvious parallels with the emerging ‘metaverse.’ Discord servers dedicated to ‘Minecraft’, ‘Roblox’ and ‘Fortnite’ are home to professional players, streaming creators and fans. These virtual spaces are busy and populated, in stark contrast to the mostly empty corporate hallways of Meta’s fake plastic worlds, and less susceptible to the trolling that these blank, culture-free spaces invite. As the critic Mike Watson writes:

“The power relations of gaming need to be judged based on what is specific to interactions within gaming, on what it means to exercise choice while being entertained as part of a team as opposed to being passive and often solitary consumers. This, together with the enhanced potential for choice making within new media, should be celebrated and built upon so that the positive aspects of gaming and social media might be deployed as a challenge to negative social phenomena.”[1]

Watson suggests that there is truly transformative potential in these communities as drivers of social change. He argues they could positively affect how we see ourselves and each other, and perhaps how we approach solidarity. The same is true of the virtual worlds within the games themselves, and the radical potential and meaning that emerges from taking part in shared-world storytelling.

The beloved space simulator ‘No Man’s Sky’ poses deep, existential questions about human nature, our future, and the simulations we might build inside the nascent ‘metaverse’. You play an astronaut. The ships you fly, trade and repair are straight from the designs of Syd Mead and Ralph McQuarrie. The game’s expertly minimalist world-building draws as much inspiration from the fiction of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein as it does from the unforgettable period cover art of Chris Foss, and the psychedelic science fiction comics of Moebius. It’s a shared visual language known to all hardcore science fiction fans.

‘Alien’ and the original ‘Star Wars’ are storytelling touchstones, not the over-explained lore-fests of their later sequels, prequels and reboots. ‘2001’ and ‘2010’, ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Ad Astra’ all feel like they could have taken place within the infinite universe of ‘No Man’s Sky’ alongside all of the ‘Trek’ and ‘Wars’ movies, shows like ‘Babylon 5’, and Iain Banks’ towering ‘Culture’ series. Nevertheless, the game’s science fiction concepts take root in the soil of hard science. In a sequence reminiscent of the opening of ‘The Martian’, you awaken with no memories on a strange planet. Your exosuit is malfunctioning, and you have minutes to live. The atmospheric soundtrack by 65daysofstatic amplifies the game’s immersive qualities – ‘math rock’ describes perfectly how they created the soundscapes for ‘No Man’s Sky’alongside Paul Weir.

The game’s creator Sean Murray has cited ‘Star Control II’, ‘Elite’ and ‘Freespace’ as key influences, but ‘No Man’s Sky’ is on a different scale. The vastness of the map is thrilling. Each warp brings you closer to your chosen destination. There’s no up, down, left, right or forward in space – just out, ever farther; or in, towards the crushing gravity of the centre. Procedural generation was Murray’s game-changing innovation. There are a possible 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 planets to visit. The process of generating these worlds depends on the creationof a mathematical ‘seed’ for each galaxy, as Murray explained to the New Yorker:

“Each star’s number becomes a seed that defines its orbiting planets, and the planetary numbers are used as seeds to define the qualities of planetary terrain, atmosphere, and ecology. In this way, the system combines entropy and structure…”

The storytelling, and the game’s design itself, offer parallels to Nick Bostrom’s ‘Simulation Argument’. Nobody within the world of ‘No Man’s Sky’ knows for sure whether they are in a simulation, and they question it often. The game asks you to interrogate the nature of reality, but simultaneously feels very ‘real’ as you top up fuel, dodge storms, escape pirates, or run from the robot space police known as ‘sentinels’.

The massive and long-running space sim ‘Eve Online’ also engages with lofty questions about reality, existence and human nature. ‘Eve’ took off in the era of early 2000s ‘LAN parties’, later moving to online play. Entering its second decade, it remains the most-played space-based MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) of all time, with a registered user count of 9 million at its peak. ‘No Man’s Sky’, by contrast, peaked at 200,000 active online players, but has since plateaued.

The universe of ‘Eve’ happens in ‘real time’. The game’s history is perhaps the largest collaboratively-created piece of fiction humankind has ever written. A ‘persistent world’ sim, it started at a point in the game’s galactic ‘history’, and continued. It offers a ruthlessly capitalist vision of space and intergalactic cultures, based around the formation of corporations who ally with, subjugate or protect the economic interests of competing groups. A galactic war in ‘Eve Online’ in 2020 cost nearly $1 million in player assets – an event referred to as the ‘EveOnline apocalypse’. ‘Eve’s ‘single shard’ is a concept not unlike the shared continuity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hundreds of thousands of players have contributed to this shared canon, and caused ‘Endgame’-level climactic battles without the guidance of a writers room, traditional ‘missions’, or any other form of narrative structure.

Both ‘No Man’s Sky’ and ‘Eve Online’ play in the shadow of the Fermi Paradox, and the developmental framework of the Kardashev Scale. Enrico Fermi’s logical challenge was to ask why, if the building blocks of life are likely to be found everywhere in the universe, we have not encountered alien civilisations. Nikolai Kardashev placed human civilisation barely above zero in his five-point scale. We are still very far from being a species which can harness the energy potential of its entire solar system and achieve intergalactic space travel, as Kardashev predicted a level five civilisation would. Our zero rating has consequences, if we wish to solve Fermi’s dilemma. Perhaps we have heard from no-one because conflict and strife tend to eliminate any species that moves beyond zero.

If ‘Eve’ asks payers to imagine a world where humans have evolved to become a Type 5 Kardashev species inhabiting a galactic core of 7,800 warring star systems, ‘No Man’s Sky’ offers a stranger vision – a larger universe full of mysteries and anomalies, sparsely populated with just a handful of space-faring species who rarely interact. If the ‘No Man’s Sky’ online play mode known as ‘Nexus’ is a little more like ‘Eve Online’, asking players to focus on strategic alliances, fleet-building and co-operative missions, it is still less of a cold, Social Darwinist vision of a post-human future – one that rewards peaceful cooperation.

‘No Man’s Sky’ and ‘Eve Online’ both offer the chance to create an avatar who has a meaningful role in the creation of a shared world and story. In Meta’s version of these shared spaces, brands lease space temporarily in order to broadcast marketing messages to passive consumers. Mark Zuckerberg will never create a compelling or popular version of a virtual online community without figuring out the sociological alchemy behind Minecraft Discord servers – even if he could, all he would seek to do is monetise it.

Like the term ‘metaverse’ itself, Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic ‘Snow Crash’ contains the first use of ‘avatar’ to mean a virtual-world proxy for a real world player: “The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.” Stephenson later provided some commentary on this passage:

“The words ‘avatar’ (in the sense used here) and ‘Metaverse’ are my inventions, which I came up with when I decided that existing words (such as ‘virtual reality’) were simply too awkward to use.”

In the same introduction to the book’s 2003 reissue, he acknowledges that the term ‘avatar’ and many of the functions of his book’s Metaverse appear in a 1986 video game called ‘Habitat’. Stephenson’s version of the concepts in ‘Snow Crash’ was ground-breaking, but the idea of shared virtual worlds, and the prediction that we would inhabit them through proxies, was already a part of humanity’s collective consciousness.

The true equivalent of Neal Stephenson’s metaverse is closer to the communities built semi-organically around MMORPGs than it is to the dry, antiseptic corporate shell of Zuckerberg’s stillborn Metaverse. The question isn’t who will win the race to ‘build’ the first metaverse, but rather who will unite them. Someone will come up with a ‘killer app’, like Tim Berners-Lee’s revolutionary invention of the internet browser. Players of each game will cross over into an infinity of virtual worlds, all shared – a sophisticated version of the realities depicted in science fiction stories like ‘Tron’, ‘Caprica’, or ‘Wreck-it-Ralph’ (all stories which, perhaps not coincidentally, feature a shadowy corporation or villain seeking to dominate or control the shared space the characters’ avatars inhabit, for the sake of profit or power).

Who owns the technology behind that leap forward will define ownership of the spaces created within it. The internet, after all, was initially based on a libertarian premise that the space inside it was infinite. All were welcome to build communities within it, and make their own rules. Hakim Bey anticipated the anarchic multiculturalism of the early internet in the concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (or TAZ). The shared universes of gaming culture are already seen as a new market territory, rather than a new space for culture and community. Now is the time to ask vital questions about their ownership and independence.

Let’s hope the killer app that unites the vast, procedurally-generated universe of a game like ‘No Man’s Sky’ with other online worlds is invented by a maverick, an independent, just like Berners-Lee. Otherwise we are on a trajectory towards another version of the garbage fire internet we inhabit today, only it will be on billboards, and behind our eyes. Fiction writers have already imagined this for us. ‘Snow Crash’, ‘Neuromancer’, ‘Ready Player One’ and ‘The Peripheral’ all depict malign corporate or political interests weaponizing or commodifying virtual worlds.

When we imagine the possibilities of the metaverse, we allow ourselves a peek into the infinite. The mathematics of our universe will keep on generating galaxies, stars and planets for what seems like forever – until it stops. A metaverse may prove to be where we spend much of our time before that distant end. Its limits are just as distant, so far out as to be meaningless. We must consider carefully what mathematics and ethics underpin such vast new possible worlds and universes. Our future is as full of promise as a sky full of unseen stars, and as dangerous as a planet choked with sentinel drones. The technologies that create virtual space are platforms – all just code. The space they create is also very real. We all live in it. Code can be re-made by a new Berners-Lee, or co-opted by malign actors like Zuckerberg and Musk. We can affect how that happens, and we must choose to do so. We can reset the simulation. No power in the ‘verse can stop us.

[1] Mike Watson, ‘Can the Left Learn to Meme?’ (Zero Books, 2018, p84)