The virtual worlds future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed

I've noticed a lot of talk over the last year or so about virtual worlds. It's impossible to ignore. Internet access and speeds and growing, gaming is now mainstream, more of our work is going remote, and online communities have achieved unprecedented cultural significance. But virtual worlds are not new, people have been living in them for decades, it just hasn't been evenly distributed.

And what people expect:

Isn't what virtual worlds will look like in reality:

First, on definitions. Wikipedia says: "A virtual world is a computer-based simulated environment which may be populated by many users who can create a personal avatar, and simultaneously and independently explore the virtual world, participate in its activities and communicate with others."

The ingredients for a virtual world are

  1. Environment

  2. Identity

  3. Activities

  4. Communication.

Science fiction describes these are parallel universes created by computers. But all of the above logos, some of them mundane tools we use at work, also satisfy the criteria. For example, Slack offers environment (channels), identity (who you bring to work), activities (posting, calling), and communication.

To me, the question of will we spend most of our time in virtual worlds isn't a question of if, but how. Which intentions in our lives will we satisfy through virtual worlds? How will we navigate our time across these many virtual worlds. Will they ever unify to just one?

On intention, I find this graphic from a WSJ article on how we spend our time helpful.

We spend most of our time (in order) on:

  1. Personal care (mostly sleep)

  2. Working

  3. TV, leisure, sports

  4. Household activities

  5. Eating and drinking

  6. Shopping

  7. Caring for family

  8. Education

And when we're unemployed, we spend more time on leisure.

So the exercise is to look at these categories and see where we might see adoption. Gaming is clearly eating into leisure time, but where are the next big buckets?

The obvious ones are working, shopping, and education. And we're already seeing some traction here with remote work, social shopping, and virtual schools (e.g. Lambda). I think all of these markets are underserved and there's probably a lot of opportunity to take lessons from gaming and apply them to these time buckets.

On how will we navigate our time, I think the answer is continued fragmentation. For most people, our everyday lives involve many different types of physical environments—our home, school, workplace, grocery store, social gatherings. While they are unified by the physical realm, they are separate environments that we visit for separate purposes. And we may bring different versions of ourselves to each of those environments (while work Tony shares the same name as out with friends Tony, these two Tonys behave and are perceived by others quite differently).

I expect the same from virtual worlds. We will bounce around from many virtual worlds each serving different purposes. And while unified by the digital realm, they are better understood as separate places rather than rooms in one house.

This is how virtual worlds work today. Just yesterday, while I was waiting for my flight at the airport, I:

  • Chatted with my family in iMessage

  • Checked messages in Slack

  • Scrolled through some tweets

  • Visited a few subreddits

  • And played a quick multiplayer game on my computer

This all happened within an hour of time. I brought a slightly different version of myself to each of these virtual environments, and my intentions spanned personal, professional, and entertainment. And I expect these behaviors to accelerate as more of our everyday lives happen in virtual spaces.

Is this good? I'm not sure but it sure feels inevitable.

What I will say is this: my favorite thing about virtual worlds—both enjoying and building them—has been seeing people find their tribes online. From the bulletin board services of the nascent internet to massive multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft, likeminded people have been getting together irrespective of physical location for decades (the 70s for bulletins and the 90s for modern MMOs).

These worlds offer an alternative place for people to build relationships, feel a sense of accomplishment, find entertainment and more. Unlike the physical world—the school you're forced to go to, the job that's the best that you can get, the family you're born into, the town you're stuck in—virtual worlds are opt-in. And those that opted in tended to have more in common with each other than the random selection of people at one's local mall.

So to the extent our increasingly virtual lives lead to a greater percentage of our time spent in environments that we opt into, with communities of people we fill energized and welcomed by, I'm for it. And I’m hopeful that is what is happening.