Searching for Friends in Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse
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In September, my family and I move from our home in Dublin to a fancy East Coast college town, where I’ll be teaching for the semester. I grew up in Dublin, which means I have a wide circle of friends to draw on whenever I’m let out of the house. The street where I live is friendly: If I want to borrow a spatula or I need someone to look after my cat, I have only to ask.
Life is different for us in the U.S. We have, for the first time, a basement. But we have no friends. It seems as if none of the permanent faculty can afford to live in the suburb where the university has placed us. We technically have neighbors, but we never see them; they manifest only in the form of their gardeners, who are at work every day with their leaf blowers.
It’s in this strange scenario — alone on a continent, cut off from everyone I know — that I decide to try the metaverse for the first time. A whole galaxy of pals brought right to your living room? I think. Why not?
The first thing that strikes me when I enter the metaverse is the people, the avatars, their — Where are their fucking legs?
Bodies stop at the waist in Horizon Worlds, which is Facebook’s — excuse me, Meta’s — home base in the metaverse. So the price of entry to this virtual paradise is the surrender of your bottom half. Frankly, it makes the metaverse feel like a cult. Legs? We don’t even miss them!
It’s hard not to read the fact that half of you disappears when you enter Horizon Worlds as symbolic somehow, and it has been a focal point for the widespread derision that’s been aimed at Mark Zuckerberg and Meta. Apparently legs, legs that move in concert with the user, are very hard to do. The engineers are working on it, supposedly, and the people I meet in the metaverse are constantly telling me how “legs are coming,” like the creatures of Narnia whispering to one another that “Aslan is on the move.”
I’m busy contemplating my legless torso when I hear laughter in the room. Lifting my Meta Quest headset, I see my son has come into my office unbeknownst to me and evidently finds my appearance amusing.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m in virtual reality,” I say.
“You look like that leopard in India that got its head stuck in a pot,” he says.
He has a point: The headset is decidedly antisocial. Once the Meta Quest is strapped on, it’s adios to the real world, so much so that the headset prompts you to demarcate a “play area” by spraying a virtual boundary line on the ground. This is to stop me from crashing into real-world furniture, walls, spouse, etc., when I’m in the middle of my VR adventures.
Henceforth, whenever I’m close to the edge of my boundary, the real world appears “through” the virtual one in a gritty, low-resolution black-and-white version of itself, like found footage in a ’90s horror movie. It’s hard not to suspect that this is how Meta wants you to think of analog reality.
Indeed, Facebook’s rebrand as Meta seems to signal Mark Zuckerberg’s conviction that reality as a whole is going to fall out of favor. The metaverse wasn’t his idea — the name comes from Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash — but his company has reportedly spent some $36 billion developing it. In Zuckerberg’s vision, the metaverse will be nothing less than the internet’s next iteration, one for which he will control both the hardware (Facebook bought headset maker Oculus in 2014) and the software (Meta has been snapping up companies even tangentially related to VR).
Once we’re plugged in, Meta will have unparalleled access to users’ lives, even the parts the company is not now surveilling. Giving a presentation, meeting your buddies, sitting around watching TV — all of it will be coming through your headset. It’s a hypermonopoly, a metamonopoly. Zuckerberg doesn’t just want a lock on online experience; he’s planning to move all of experience online.
So far, the gamble hasn’t paid off. Only 20 million Quest headsets have been sold — nowhere close to his goal of a billion users. On March 14, Zuckerberg announced that Meta was laying off around 10,000 workers, joining the 11,000 laid off four months earlier.
On my initial visits, the metaverse seems sort of desolate, like an abandoned mall, and ordinarily I wouldn’t be lining up to join the misfits still populating it. Now that I’m away from my social network, though, I realize how much heavy lifting was being done by the brief, bantering, checking-in conversations I used to have with my friends and neighbors. So I’m determined to find the metaverse’s true believers, those left behind when the rest of fickle reality has moved on. They may not be able to lend me a spatula, but I’ve decided that, for now at least, these will be my people.
Hipster café. Most of the spaces in the metaverse are designed by users but share Meta’s lo-fi aesthetic.
Photo: Paul Murray
When you enter Horizon Worlds for the first time, after a brief warning about seizures, you hear a female voice assure you that if anyone upsets you, you can report them. In a giggly whisper, the voice adds, “Don’t worry, we won’t tell them it was you!”
While some people have experienced harassment in Horizon Worlds, the major problem is kids. Under-13’s aren’t supposed to use the headset, but the app is overrun with children occupying their parents’ avatars, meaning that conversations are constantly interrupted by (1) apparent adults asking you in high-pitched voices if you like poop and (2) polls to decide if the poop person should be removed.
After clearing through the warning messages, I can navigate an array of “worlds.” The word is misleading because these worlds, most of which have been designed by users, range from small to very, very small. Technical limitations restrict the number of people in a single “instance” of a world to 32 or fewer. A lot of worlds I visit have no one in them at all.
Solitude is not why I came here, so for my first trip, I choose a world called Party House. The screen turns blue, calming plinky-plonk music plays, a message appears: PREPARING WORLD. And then I arrive.
The Party House itself is a square purple building, surprisingly blocky and primitive, as if it were made out of cyber-Duplos. Most worlds look like this, in fact; the dominant architectural style throughout the app, whether you’re in Hipster Café or Winter Wonderland, is what you might call “early Minecraft.” There’s a rectangular blue pool you can “get into,” though this isn’t especially rewarding, and a terrace with a DJ playing house music. The top halves of people wander about.
A man in a fedora bobs by, his username, Nutsacksandwich, floating over his head. (I’ve changed usernames throughout this article but not by much.)
“Hi,” I say.
“He said he wanted to eat my penis,” Nutsacksandwich says to me in a high-pitched child’s voice. This is my first conversation in the metaverse.
I go into the house, where I meet a couple from the north of England. The woman keeps making strange gestures with her hands as if she were trying to tunnel through the air. “Ooh, you are naughty,” she says. Is she talking to me? “Oh, sorry,” she says. “I’m in bed, and my dog is burrowing under the quilt.” “Oh,” I say. This is my second conversation in the metaverse.
As I walk around some more, a strange sensation grips me. It’s … boredom. I’m bored! When was the last time I was truly bored? I don’t think I’ve felt like this since I got a smartphone. It’s actually kind of interesting, though mostly it’s just boring. A panel appears in front of me. Nutsacksandwich has been reported, it says, with a picture of Nutsacksandwich’s avatar. Do you want Nutsacksandwich to be ejected? I give the question some thought. I decide to let Nutsacksandwich stay: I like his energy.
I can’t stress how unlike a party house the Party House is. It’s not just the amateurish, low-tech design; it’s not just the sparse attendance and desultory interactions. It’s the total absence of mood. It reminds me of when I’d try to get together with friends over Zoom during lockdown — everyone’s face appearing in a box in the grid like contestants in some bleak, prizeless game show, the total absence of physicality making us feel more distant from one another than ever.
A man in a beanie approaches me. His username is Impala-expert. I ask him whether it’s Impala the car or impala the animal. This seems to confuse him.
“Lotta sweet-looking ladies here tonight,” he says as a woman, or at least an avatar of a woman, goes by in a crop top.
I ask how long he’s been using the Quest and what activities he’d recommend.
He thinks about it. “There’s ping-pong,” he says. “And there’s porn.”
“Yeah, virtual porn. You tried it yet?”
“Yeah, that’s some good stuff,” Impalaexpert says.
I ask if he’s concerned at all about being tracked. With Zuckerberg, you can’t rule out the possibility that the whole metaverse is some sort of Matrix-style life-force drain. (A Meta spokesperson assured New York that “privacy is an integral part of our product design, and we offer privacy controls that put people in charge of their experience.”)
“People always hating on Zuck,” Impalaexpert says.
“That doesn’t mean they’re wrong,” I say.
“I don’t know, man, I’m just here to have a good time and maybe pick up some MILFs.”
“Pick them up?” I repeat. “But what will you do with them?”
“Oh, I’ll do,” Impalaexpert says mysteriously.
Now I’m confused. We’re in virtual reality. We don’t have bodies. We don’t even have bottom halves.
Whatever his VR-MILF-hunting secrets are, Impalaexpert isn’t ready to share them. “Think I’ll chill out in the pool for a while,” he says. I watch him cross the bare space till he comes to the blue rectangle that represents the pool. Then his avatar is in the pool, so only his head remains over the surface, gazing unblinkingly back at me.
Photo: Paul Murray
After this white-knuckle ride through cyberspace, my life offline feels all the more pedestrian. Literally: We don’t have a car, so we have to walk everywhere. In the morning, my wife and I walk our son to his new school. Then one (or both) of us walks to the supermarket. Then we walk back to the school to pick our son up.
I like walking as much as the next man, but everything is slightly too far. Drenched in sweat, I think of the effortless glide of my Horizon Worlds avatar, his blithe hopping between worlds in the metaverse, which are always the same temperature as my air-conditioned office.
One day, we discover a shortcut through a gorgeous wood, which we learn has been designated as a nature reserve, though just to be sure nature knows who’s in charge, the city planners have tactfully run a major traffic artery through it. As a kind of reward to the anxious consumer, the journey ends with a vista of two shopping malls, one with the eye-wateringly expensive supermarket, the other with a Bloomingdale’s. Both have bakeries exclusively for dogs.
Of the three of us, my son has the most readjusting to do. He misses his friends and his pets; it doesn’t help that our house, which belongs to the Irish-studies department, is decorated with misty-eyed depictions of home. The first thing you’ll see when you come through the door is a quotation from the work of playwright J. M. Synge: “It’s a lonesome thing to be away from Ireland always.”
I assure my son that he’ll make new friends, that it just takes time. He’s skeptical. It’s hard to take advice from a man whose social life currently amounts to standing in his office with a bucket on his head.
One night, I let my son wear the headset. I’m still explaining the basics when he holds up a hand. “I think Finglefur is the impostor,” he says thoughtfully.
“I’m playing Among Us,” he says.
“What happened to David Attenborough’s Conquest of the Skies?”
“Shh,” he says.” I’m talking to someone.”
“Oh,” I say, and then, “Wait, who?”
He doesn’t reply. I linger vestigially, invisibly, at his shoulder. Tinny speech issues not quite audibly from the headset speakers. My son nods. Under the headset, his lips curl into a smile. “Just my dad,” he says.
A very British pub.
Photo: Paul Murray
Comedy is big in the metaverse, and the Soapstone Club is one of Horizon Worlds’ most popular destinations. That’s where I meet Okiedriver, who’s a producer at the club, meaning he helps out with events and explains to newcomers how the place works. Meta is reportedly striving for “almost Disney levels of safety” for its users, and the comedy here, he tells me, is resolutely family friendly. “Think about a 6 p.m. slot on regular TV,” he says. Turning to a billboard, he runs through the upcoming acts, saying encouraging things about each one: “Morknmindy, I recommend that very highly; you’ll laugh till you cry.”
A second billboard, unusually, depicts photos of real-life comedians. I find myself slightly awed by this, as if I had forgotten temporarily that I, too, am a human, not a cartoon. DRY BAR AT THE SOAPSTONE, reads the billboard. FEATURING DREW LYNCH, ALEX VELLUTO, DAPHNIQUE SPRINGS. NATIONALLY RECOGNIZED COMEDIANS PERFORMING AS AVATARS IN VR.
“We’re expecting a big crowd for that one,” Okiedriver says. “These are nationally recognized comedians.” He lowers his voice. “We may see Mark Zuckerberg in attendance.”
“Uh-huh. He came before, sat in the audience. He mutes himself, doesn’t speak. I was working here that night.”
Zuckerberg’s username, according to Okiedriver, is TheHumanZuck. (I don’t point out to Okiedriver that I’ve also seen an avatar for KimJongUn in the club, and during Zuckerberg’s public appearances in virtual reality, his username was either Mark or Zuck.)
The Soapstone interior resembles a very basic sketch of a club; there are representations of stools, tables, a bar at the back. Above the stage is the club’s motto: WE’RE ALL HERE BECAUSE WE’RE NOT ALL THERE. Okiedriver points to two leaderboards on the wall. The first is for this week’s top-rated comedians; Morknmindy, who I believe is only one person, is riding high here. The other is the supporters’ leaderboard: Okiedriver is at No. 5. To be a supporter, you make a $10 donation to the club — “Real dollars,” Okiedriver explains. “And then that unlocks a lot of features.”
This all gets pretty opaque, but as far as I can work out, becoming a supporter mostly means you get to participate in the leaderboard, which is like a race to be the best superfan of the club. Producing, as Okiedriver’s doing right now, wins you points; applauding the comedians gets you points. “Every time you show up here, you get points. It’s a great system,” he says.
The absolute pinnacle of success in the Soapstone is winning a T-shirt with the club’s URL. “A real T-shirt. They send it to your house,” Okiedriver says in a way that makes the actual world, his actual house, seem impossibly remote and lonely.
Gamification is everywhere these days — in the classroom, at work, on your daily bike ride — but introducing it into a comedy club seems particularly perverse. The late anthropologist David Graeber talked about the “baseline communism” that holds society together, the many small acts of goodwill people perform for one another every day without even thinking. Someone gives you directions, someone lights your cigarette, someone takes you on a tour of his virtual comedy club. I’m sure Okiedriver, who’s clearly a kind, thoughtful guy, deeply invested in his club, would show people around for free. But because the club has introduced this points system, his goodwill has been, effectively, monetized.
“Right,” Okiedriver says circumspectly when I put this to him. “Though the thing is you can always just buy points.” He indicates the top of the leaderboard. “Earlier today, Texasmarshall came over. I was standing here, and he was just pumping money in, three times, 60 points a shot.” His voice takes on a kind of dazed mournfulness, as if he’s still processing it. “So now he’s No. 1, didn’t have to lift a finger.”
Photo: Paul Murray
Ever since VR began going mainstream, the masters of the corporate world have been circling the virtual one, waiting for something concrete enough to throw money at and, in the meantime, putting out press releases to assure shareholders they’re on top of it. None of the cheerleading makes the metaverse sound too enticing, however. Some of it is downright sociopathic.
In an op-ed published by CoinDesk, Janine Yorio and Zach Hungate of Everyrealm, “a metaverse-focused innovation firm and investment fund,” argue that the metaverse “will allow us to do things we cannot do in reality, much as video games do. We can destroy things and kill people without fear of punishment or retribution. We can be risqué and push cultural and societal norms beyond traditional boundaries, cloaked by anonymity and invincibility in the metaverse. We can fly, experiment with drugs, and cheat on our partners.”
To be clear, these are people who think the metaverse is a good idea. The primary attraction of the metaverse, per Yorio and Hungate, is that none of the normal rules and obligations we have to one another apply. The real world, with its endless laws and limitations, is mainly there to showcase the endless plasticity of the virtual one; it’s the plodding flesh-bound partner that will no longer be allowed to restrict your awesomeness.
In my experience, though, this upending of social norms has a strange flattening effect on interactions in virtual reality. It’s the dynamic at play on Facebook, where the company throws family members, lifelong friends, and chance acquaintances — strong ties and weak ties, to use the sociological terminology — into your feed so that, over time, you stop being able to distinguish them, stop being able to tell who your real friends are or what a real friend even is.
You can see that same flattening effect brought to life, if that’s the word, in Horizon Worlds, where users choose their own avatars, but with Meta’s template, all end up looking somehow the same: joyless, determinedly winsome cartoons of themselves, like something from an Intro to French textbook. Everybody’s the same height here in Horizon Worlds; everybody’s face is symmetrical. Almost nobody is fat or old, age usually being signified only by white hair, as if it were just some nonintuitive fashion choice.
Zuckerberg puts himself front and center in a lot of Meta’s marketing. His curious IRL appearance — of a human designed by a computer or of a Styrofoam cup that a wizard decided to turn into a person but then changed his mind about halfway through — adapts unexpectedly well to the Meta-cartoonization algorithm. Perhaps this tells us something about his metaverse project. Perhaps, for him, it’s a way to level up.
Photo: Paul Murray
The true foundation of the metaverse experience is the voice. The worlds have been designed so that people’s voices — the only genuinely human element you’ll encounter — grow louder as you draw nearer to them and quieter as you move away.
The standard of interaction enabled by this fancy bit of engineering is, shall we say, variable. People move through worlds muttering to themselves in a bus-station type of way. Generally speaking, the best you can hope for in Horizon Worlds is the kind of aimless if well-intentioned chat you might get on a smoke break outside the work canteen. There’s usually a lot of talk about where people are from, of the “I used to live in X, but now I live in Y” variety.
That said, the unlovable lo-fi graphics and interpersonal randomness can give Horizon Worlds a kind of a perverse, bockety charm. Unlike Twitter or Instagram, there’s no scope to broadcast your brand here; everybody’s just thrown together, like at a ’90s music festival with no music. Plus the metaverse is the one place I don’t look at my phone every five seconds. There’s no option but to be present.
I meet some nice people, particularly at A Very British Pub. BusinessAlum has bright-yellow, strawlike hair and speaks in a high, reedy voice, as if he’s just dropped in from Sesame Street. “I used to live in Quincy! But the commute was so bad! And the snow! Ten feet of snow in a week! I fell and broke my back! Now I live in Florida!”
On another night, I meet a guy called Brainyparts, who’s living in South Dakota, having moved there to avoid COVID regulations, and we have a long discussion about Elon Musk. At the end, I tell him it’s the best conversation I’ve had in the metaverse. But BusinessAlum overhears! I’m sorry, BusinessAlum.
Later, I ask someone named Spaceangel7 what she would recommend to do in the metaverse, and she tells me she really enjoyed sitting in on AA meetings. “Are you an alcoholic?” “No.” “Didn’t they mind you being there?” “When they found out, they were pretty angry, yeah.”
Who are all these people? They are shift workers, they are snowed in near Seattle, they are looking after a sick dog, they are parents with young children, they are hanging out while their wife plays Skyrim, they just didn’t feel like going to the bar tonight. And so they came here.
But what are they getting, exactly? The thing about my IRL friendships (and not having them has given me a lot of time to think about this) is that they tend to have a point. They’re grounded in some shared experience — a shared past, a shared task, a shared interest or illness or home or workplace — and they’re usually elaborated via an activity: going to a movie, cycling around the mountains. And when something heartfelt needs to be said, it can be said in the margins of these activities, in the pub afterward, in the café.
Here, in the metaverse, nobody has any connection to anyone else beyond owning a headset, a weak tie if ever there was one. Consequently, the conversations tend to stay on the level of small talk. If you’re a metaverse developer and you regard the details of real life as basically cosplay, then you will see no reason a lasting bond shouldn’t spring up between two avatars floating in cyberspace. But in practice, when you remove everything that gives someone’s life shape and meaning, the essence that’s left doesn’t have a huge amount to say beyond stray thoughts on bitcoin or the latest episode of The Last of Us.
It gives the metaverse the feel of a kind of cybernursery — somewhere to deposit the kids and let them toddle about burbling meaninglessly in the knowledge that they are safely contained. Not for the first time, I began to worry that even if I found my people, I wouldn’t want to hang out with them here.
Photo: Paul Murray
After a certain number of hours in Zuckerberg’s personal universe, you find yourself asking questions like “Does he think this is good?” Looking through my notes, I keep coming across words like diminished, depleted, wan, bleak. The beta-ness of it all is mystifying. If I were Zuckerberg and I’d spent $36 billion building a metaverse, I’d make sure when I launched it there was something to do. Why would he go to all the trouble of building a virtual world, then leave it to the users to make their own fun, as if they were at a holiday camp in the ’80s?
This strange sense of anomie hasn’t escaped the people I meet in the metaverse. “We from all around the world and we all in one place and look at us, we bored, we don’t know what to do,” a user named Cprlrpg says from the Soapstone stage, though it must be conceded that he drops this truth bomb directly after his poorly received three-minute comedy set, which revolved around video games he played as a child. (“Flight Simulator, that was another good one.”)
The Soapstone is a case in point. Most nights at the club could barely even be called open mic. It’s just people talking or mumbling or swirling around confusedly, sometimes lurching onstage to ramble, sing tunelessly, or ask their mom where the other controller is.
Still, the show must go on. Cprlrpg is followed onstage by a dude with the handle Upstandingveteran, which doesn’t seem promising comedy-wise. From the position of his hands, it’s clear he’s reading from flash cards. Nobody laughs, but there is a lot of singular snickering.
Looking over to the middle of the room, I see none other than the official No. 1 Soapstone supporter, Texasmarshall, Okiedriver’s nemesis, seated on a barstool. He’s all in black with a black hat and a black beard, and he’s speaking to his buddies in an oleaginous, heavily accented Boss Hogg voice. Part of the reason no one’s laughing at Upstandingveteran is that Texasmarshall is conducting a constant sotto voce monologue about how bad Upstandingveteran’s jokes are, at which his friends, who have the look of henchmen, are hur-hur-hur-ing.
Horizon Worlds, since I started visiting it, has been consistently vibe free, yet tonight there’s something in the room. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s not comedy. Then, as Lovingflame takes the stage to deliver an a cappella version of “Careless Whisper,” it all crackles to life. A new avatar materializes in the room, a young Hispanic guy with short hair and a goatee and the username RicardoCortazar. His appearance causes a stir among Texasmarshall and his cronies, who have upped the snickering and now level some personal remarks. “What’s that on Ricardo’s face?” inquires Texasmarshall. “Looks like he dipped his chin in dogshit.” Hur-hur-hur, go the cronies.
“What did you say?” RicardoCortazar says. One of the cronies tells him something along the lines of “Fuck off.” “Now, now,” Tex says, chuckling, in his Boss Hogg voice, “he’s a good little Mexican boy. He’s gonna check my tires for me later.” Shrieks of appreciation from his onlookers.
“Why are you saying this to me?” RicardoCortazar says. “Is it because I’m colored?”
This causes uproar. The henchmen clamor that he can’t use racist language in here. “Seriously? You’re calling me a racist?” RicardoCortazar says in disbelief. But already a poll has appeared to say he’s been reported for violating the guidelines, and a vote is being taken on whether to boot him: A moment later, he vanishes, still protesting.
I’m in disbelief too: It’s so strange hearing Horizon’s sterile animated figurines issuing this garbage. But the show’s not over. Now Tex is looking across the room. “Who’s this now?” he asks rhetorically. “This guy over here, who is he?”
He’s staring right at me — a full-on stare, which it turns out is just as creepy in VR as it is IRL.
The henchmen all turn to look at me. “What you doin’ here, boy?” Texasmarshall says. Glerk. I remember stories I’ve heard about people being “swarmed” in Horizon Worlds. It’s alarming: There’s a difference between someone typing at you in all caps on Twitter and yelling at you in real time. I tell him that, as a matter of fact, I’m writing a magazine article, thinking I can appeal to his vanity. But there’s another rumble of discontent at this, and a moment later the Soapstone disappears. I’ve been booted!
I take off my headset and, standing in my office, try to figure out what just happened. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed any straight-up racism since I came to America. How strange to see it here from a bunch of Playmobil rednecks in a make-believe comedy club.
I put the headset back on, but by the time I’m allowed to return to the Soapstone, it has emptied out apart from two women avatars who, when they speak, sound 6 years old at most. There is cake at the bar, and they keep bringing me slices. I can’t eat it, so I find a discreet place to throw it, but they keep finding me again and bringing me more — slice after slice of inedible pixelated cake.
By this point, so many people have recommended the porn to me that I decide I should probably check it out. Meta, let us be clear, does not make porn (see those “almost Disney levels of safety”), though obviously it will benefit if adult content becomes a major driver of headset sales. Instead, I use the Meta Quest browser to find third-party sites. It turns out there’s no shortage. The world may be running low on a lot of things — rain forests, water, ethical billionaires — but with porn, we have nothing to worry about.
VR Bangers is one of the more prominent pay sites. It features the same categories as a regular porn site (“MILF,” “Orgy”) as well as some that are less familiar (“Canadian”). There are free trailers for the pay features, and I land on Keeping Promises, starring Gabbie Carter, Angela White, and an unnamed dude. The trailer opens with White reminding the viewer,
“I promised I would have a surprise for you.” Well, she is keeping her promise in the form of Carter, who now comes in.
I’ve spent so long among the Horizon Worlds cartoons that it’s disconcerting to see actual humans with bottom halves. White and Carter, to be fair, also have significant top halves, but Keeping Promises is a kind of extravagant celebration of the bottom half, the half you traded away to be here. Now you temporarily have it back: You, or your proxy, are nothing but bottom half in the movie, initially wearing trousers, very quickly not.
Is it realistic? If you’ve never had sex, it will probably seem like a pretty on-the-money representation of what sex is like. But actually it’s a more intensified version of porn, the next stage on a path that may never make contact with the reality. Sometimes it feels like watching porn in the front row of an Imax cinema, the female performers looming over you like goddesses the size of mountains. Elsewhere, it feels like being in a porn movie — not in a bedroom with Angela White and Gabbie Carter but inside a prerecorded moving image, which is phenomenologically disorientating and frankly not that hot.
Even VR Bangers seems confused about the exact nature of the experience here, whether you’re participating or just watching. “You have got two of the best pairs of tits in the universe at your disposal,” runs the website copy, “and you can play with them as much as you want and even cum on them if you feel like to (sic), having an extra piece of fun in this cum on tits VR porn scene … This is literally a dream coming true, so wear your VR goggles and stop dreaming to make it all possible in our immersive virtual reality of full 3D 180 degrees!”
It’s kind of like Chuang Tzu and the butterfly, is what VR Bangers is saying here. Is it a dream? Is it reality? We don’t know.
I’m thinking these profound thoughts when I become aware of a presence in the room, the actual room.
“We’re going to the comic-book store with Minnie,” my wife says.
“Oh, right,” I croak.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Oh, you know,” I say. “Playing a game.”
“You’re not moving.”
“Yes, ah, it’s a, a special level.”
Can a silence be pointed? Only for a moment. Then the door closes.
A professor lends us her daughter’s Subaru. Our lives are transformed. It turns out that everything that seemed far away is actually incredibly close by. Now, after taking my son to school, my wife and I go on trips to the nearby town center. The café! The bookstore! The other, less expensive supermarket! After three months in the suburbs, it’s like being at Burning Man.
In December, we walk down to the campus for the Christmas-tree-lighting ceremony. There is free hot chocolate and a group playing carols on bells. Santa Claus arrives with a police escort. People are lining up to get their picture taken with the elves. I’m asking my son if he wants to join them when he exclaims, “Minnie’s here!” and runs off into the crowd.
“Who is Minnie?” I ask my wife. “Heather’s here!” she exclaims. Then she runs off into the crowd.
I wander around a while, feeling sorry for myself, then I find them. Minnie is in my son’s class at school. Heather is her mom. “We’re going to Shake Shack!” they say.
“Oh, great,” I say, but then I remember that Horizon Worlds is unveiling its holiday selfie stations tonight: By pressing a button on your avatar’s wrist, you can summon a phone to take virtual pictures of yourself in front of Santa’s sleigh.
“That’s okay!” they say. “See you later!”
“Maybe I could just skip the metaverse for tonight,” I muse. But they have already left.
In A Very British Pub that evening, an avatar is running around in the background shouting in a high-pitched voice about poop. MissVirtuagirl gets pissed off and goes to remonstrate with the moderator. “It’s not ap-pro-priate,” she keeps saying, then at last turns on her heel. “I’m bored of this world,” she says. “I’m going to another world.” With that, she disappears.
“If they’re not voted out, I’m not going to remove them,” Spirogirl, the moderator, says.
“I don’t ever vote to remove anyone because that’s just who I am,” BusinessAlum volunteers. “But if you want to, that’s okay!”
An avatar named Othertiger, who I think may have some sort of producer-type role here in the pub, is asking people questions to get the conversation going. He turns to me and invites me to say something unique about myself.
Ever since the incident with Texasmarshall, I’ve refrained from telling people I’m writing an article. But tonight I can’t think of anything else to say. “What’s your angle?” Othertiger says. I don’t want to be unkind, but I tell him the truth. “There’s nothing here,” I tell him. “Nothing’s real.”
“I’m real,” Othertiger points out. “Spirogirl’s real, Business-Alum’s real.”
The people are real, I concede. But as to the rest of it … I mean, look at this place. I gesture at the rudimentary space we’re presently inhabiting, a simulacrum that does not, cannot, serve alcohol or any other form of potable liquid. “And that’s the metaverse,” I say. “The metaverse is a pub with no beer.”
“But don’t you have any beer in your house?” BusinessAlum asks. He looks about him, as if he might have one he can somehow pass to me from Florida.
“There’s a lot on Horizon Worlds,” Othertiger says. “There’s dark shit. There’s funny shit. There’s weird shit. I can show you, if you want.” Then to the others, “What do you say, you want to take a trip?”
The others are onboard: BusinessAlum, LightningWitchBabe, Cauliflowerbouquet. On Othertiger’s instructions, the five of us bump fists together. A big blue ball appears and expands outward. Now we’re all in a party together, meaning we can teleport to the same places and hear one another wherever we go. A portal appears before us and, with it, a sense of excitement — communal excitement.
We find ourselves in a gently glowing white corridor. “See how it’s all nice and peaceful?” Othertiger says. We proceed along the corridor till we come to a huge black door. We pass through it into a very different space: a church dedicated to Satan. The floor here is dark red; the walls are black and covered with occult symbols and bestial masks. Rock music is playing. “There used to be strippers,” Othertiger says, “but Meta made them get rid of them.”
We take masks from the walls and put them on, then proceed into the church proper, where there are pews in rows, an altar with a large upside-down cross, and a goat-headed statue with hail SATAN written above it.
Othertiger gets up on the altar. “They’ve got this cool thing where if someone hits you with one of the staffs, you get sent to hell,” he says.
“The music should be scarier,” BusinessAlum observes. He’s right — it’s the kind of leather-pants L.A. rock Johnny Depp might play. “They do actually have Black Masses and shit here,” Othertiger assures us.
BusinessAlum and I are quite keen to see hell, so Othertiger asks FetalAbnormality, a friend of his who has just joined us, to go get a staff. FetalAbnormality hits us with the staff. BusinessAlum disappears. Then I disappear.
We rematerialize in a very small red room, not much more than a box. There are bars in the walls through which we can see the church below us. As far as hell goes, we agree we expected more. After a few seconds, Othertiger appears. Before I can ask him any questions, he and BusinessAlum dematerialize. I, however, am still in hell. “Guys?” I say. For a moment, I can still hear them, talking and laughing. Then there is silence.
I spend what seems like several minutes there in the small red chamber. I note to myself that my life — my real, finite, human life — is slowly passing while I stand in my office room with a headset on, voluntarily trapped in a pixelated representation of hell. “Guys?” I say again. “BusinessAlum?”
At last, I give up and quit the program. For a moment, nothing happens, and I’m seized with panic that the program won’t quit and, furthermore, that when I take off the headset I’ll still be here, in hell.
After a few deep breaths, I return to the metaverse and track down our party in a bar. There are several floors, but, as in the other worlds we’ve visited, we have the whole place to ourselves. We go upstairs, where there’s a game set into the table. A bottle sits at the center of a wheel, around which are written the following categories: 7 MINUTES IN HEAVEN WITH ANYONE, ROAST SOMEONE, SPILL THE TEA, ASK ME ANYTHING, TRUTH OR DARE ANYONE. We take turns spinning using a big red button.
Soon, BusinessAlum announces with some excitement that two girlfriends of his are coming and they’re bringing eight of their girlfriends with them. “That makes ten girls!”
But when they appear, it’s just the original two, and one of them leaves shortly after arriving. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the girl who remains, Moniqueisamazing, talks enough for at least ten people. The game, which had not been especially civilized up to this point, takes a deep dive into the gutter.
“Truth or dare,” Moniqueisamazing says. “Okay, Cauliflower: Have you ever had your pussy licked from the back?”
Cauliflowerbouquet, a quiet, elegant woman and the only member of our group who, if this were an actual bar, would not be asked to leave, says she is unclear what that means.
“Fuckin’ obvious what it means. You remember if a motherfucker lick you from the back to the front or the front to the back.”
“Oh,” Cauliflower says. “Then no.”
Moniqueisamazing, who says she is Native American and lives in Louisiana, makes several important contributions over the next rounds of the game: “Never ever have I: sucked an uncircumcised dick. I just won’t do it!” “Never ever have I: fucked two guys at once. Why do y’all sound so surprised?”
My turn to spin. I get TRUTH OR DARE, which effectively means “truth.” I turn to Othertiger. He’s a smart guy, very alpha. I’m wondering what’s behind the macho exterior, so I ask him when in his life he felt saddest. “What kind of question is that?” the others want to know.
But Othertiger is thinking it over, and finally he says, “I can tell you what’s the saddest I’ve been recently, and that’s two weeks ago, my 14-year-old nephew died by himself.”
There’s a silence in the little room. Because Othertiger’s expression doesn’t change — can’t change, not with the current technology — it’s hard to tell if he’s being serious, and we’re half-expecting him to say he’s fucking with us. But instead he just sort of slumps, and his voice seems to crack slightly when he blurts out, “I come here because I’m trying to get away from that shit!”
After that, there’s an explosion of voices, all shouting some variation of “Fuck you! What the fuck, man?” at me. And I feel bad and apologize to Othertiger and say I don’t know why I asked him that. Although I do know: because I wanted someone to say something real. And he did, and now I know him a little better. Now I have some sense of what he’s doing here in the metaverse at 1 a.m.
BusinessAlum, with his kind heart, asks Othertiger what was the best time in his life. Without needing to think about it too much, Othertiger answers, “Cedar Point, 1996.” It’s an amusement park. Some of the others know this place and agree that it’s a good choice. But it’s sad, too, no? 1996 seems like an awfully long — “That’s enough, man! You’ve done enough fuckin’ damage!”
From here on, the conversation remains resolutely ribald. There is a discussion of hot tubs as a location for sex. Then BusinessAlum tells us about how the pretty girl in the apartment below him, whom he has always liked, asked him to come down and kill a cockroach for her. “I killed it!” he says. “But then I didn’t know what to do. What should I have done?”
“Whipped it out,” Othertiger says.
“Would that have worked?” Business-Alum says dubiously. “I wasn’t getting that vibe. But maybe I don’t have enough self-confidence.”
“This time was all about setting it up,” FetalAbnormality says. “Next time is when you whip it out.”
“Yeah, last time she’s freaked because of the cockroach,” Moniqueisamazing says. “If she asks you to her apartment again, only one reason.”
“Okay,” BusinessAlum says, not sounding entirely convinced. “I guess it’s been a while for me.”
“Me too,” Othertiger says. “I haven’t had sex in six months.”
“I haven’t had sex in a year,” FetalAbnormality says.
This makes Othertiger think of LightningWitchBabe. “What happened to her?” he says. “Her avatar was hot as fuck.”
“Yeah, where did she go?” FetalAbnormality wonders.
Where did she go? Where is she now? What’s her real name, what does she look like, what relationship does she bear to the avatar of the girl who sat here and coughed and told us she was starring in an upcoming Netflix show? Will we see her again? Did we see her at all? I get a shiver. I can’t stop thinking about the way Othertiger described his nephew’s death — by himself; that was how he put it. I guess he meant by his own hand. But the way it came out, it sounded like he died from being on his own.
I don’t know the boy’s circumstances or what was going on in his life. A tragedy like that can happen anywhere. Still, I can’t help noticing how many of the stories tonight are about being alone — about not getting laid, not talking to the girl, not having someone there when they take off the headset. Seen through the lens of the metaverse, America looks so huge and so lonely.
I have to go. I have a sudden urge to see my wife and son, as if they might have disappeared like LightningWitchBabe. Before leaving, I thank Othertiger for showing me around.
“Do you get it now? Do you see what it’s about?” he says. “It’s not a game. It’s about hanging out, making friends, being assholes.”
“It’s not a game,” he says again as I disappear.
On our last night in the college town, we take a break from packing to go outside and photograph the house, now covered in snow. My son flips back and forth from frolicking in the winter wonderland to tearful questions about the friends he’s leaving behind: “What am I supposed to do? Delete my memories?”
In Dublin, my brother-in-law comes to the airport at 5 a.m. to pick us up. In the days that follow, I take a lot of pleasure from seeing my son running around outside with his buddies. They’re constantly agitating to come in and play the Switch, but if we stand firm, they eventually give up and find something analog to do. If we can give him just one more year, we tell each other, one more year of being a kid, before his friends all get phones and he has to get one too …
“The greatest poverty,” wrote the poet Wallace Stevens, “is not to live in a physical world.” Mark Zuckerberg has bet his fortune that the opposite is true. So far, however, it hasn’t paid out. The Quest has been a failure; the consensus is that the technology simply isn’t good enough yet to lure people away from their PlayStations.
Still, Zuckerberg is nothing but tenacious, and he’s playing the long game. The Quest 3 is coming — maybe that’ll be the one that catches on. Already, to add to the personal info you’ve uploaded to Facebook, Meta can track your eye movements and facial movements. Before long, you’ll have no need to go outside or even, perhaps, to stay awake; your meta-self, AI enabled, will do the working and the playing for you, and you can simply lie down, close your eyes, and dream of walking through far-off temples with the friends you used to have.
My wife wanted me to leave the Quest behind, but I brought it back. Unpacking, I think about jumping into the metaverse one last time — I never really got to say good-bye to the people I met there. Before I can switch it on, there’s a knock at the door. It’s our neighbors, inviting us to their house to watch the World Cup final.
“There’s beer,” they say.
“Beer? In your actual house?”
They laugh. Yes, in the house, for real.
It seems like the whole street is there. Being in a room full of friendly faces is almost overwhelming. “How was America?” they ask. Where can I begin? “There were two dog bakeries,” I say.
But that’s as far as I get. Then the whistle blows and the game begins.