Online will become the “third place” where we do much of our socialising in 2021. As the Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the distinction between the workplace and the home space, we are starting to look beyond video calls and turning to virtual worlds to give us the same experience as our favourite gathering places.
The pandemic saw sharp increases in the numbers of players across many gaming platforms. With schools closed and outdoor opportunities limited, players flocked to Epic Games’ Fortnite. There are now 350 million registered Fortnite players, compared to 250 million in March 2019, helping propel the company to a $17.3 billion (£13.3 billion) valuation. Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which offers wholesome co-operation and virtual outdoor adventures, drove Nintendo’s operating profits up 428 per cent in the quarter after its release.
In 2021, this online activity will increase and the virtual economy will grow. In some sectors the concept of “going to work” in a virtual space is already gaining ground. Military training in synthetic environments, where realistic exercises and scenarios can be played out in safety, is now widespread. And people are also finding ingenious ways to recreate their real-world, non-work lives online. Couples are conducting weddings in Animal Crossing and groups are holding meetings around the digital campfire in Red Dead Redemption Online’s Old West.
We’ve long seen the aspiration of real experiences in virtual worlds. Projects such as Second Life explored the technological and social possibilities for what was then a relatively small online community. Now, a generation that met on Facebook or Tinder is routinely hanging out on Zoom and Houseparty while their children play together in Minecraft and Roblox. The move to virtual worlds is enabled by increasing data connection, cloud computing and powerful, portable devices – but the cultural shift is no less important.
These inventive applications for game worlds will evolve into other kinds of virtual meeting places. In 2020, game-development students and faculty at the University of Utah built a virtual world where they could conduct their graduation ceremony. The graduating students (or, rather, their avatars) walked in a procession, listened to speakers and received their graduation cords in a recreation of their own campus building. The students built the game in two weeks, using Unreal Engine and SpatialOS, and streamed the ceremony live for friends and family on Twitch.
As events like this grow in number, the online world will provide neutral, easily accessible and playful spaces, which are free from hierarchies. This will be ideal for the sort of shared experiences, adventures and surprise encounters we need to make new connections, create new understandings and drive forward our relationships. This fulfils exactly sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s vision that, in order to build society, we need third places where we can “relax in public, where you encounter familiar faces and make new acquaintances”.
Beyond 2021, we will be able to begin to weave together thousands of disparate online spaces into single simulations, allowing hundreds of thousands – or millions – of us to gather in the same virtual-world spaces.
Herman Narula is co-founder and CEO of Improbable Worlds