The standard environment of Meta’s Horizon Worlds, i.e., the Facebook metaverse, is represented. Although the palm trees are a bit exaggerated, it’s a strangely realistic vision of the Coconino National Forest. The sensual lighting effects reinforce the idea of an idealized Earth. (Courtesy of Meta)
As hard as it is to choose, I have a favorite episode of Frasier. The Silver Door, a new Seattle spa frequented by high-profile socialites that Frasier and Niles are eager to visit, is featured in Season 10 episode 11 titled “Door Jam.” They eventually make their way into the club and have the most enjoyable experience of their lives – until they discover an even more elite level of membership, locked behind a golden door. So they start plotting again to gain additional access, spending a lot of money in the process. During an aftercare scene in a room nicknamed the “relaxation cave,” the Crane boys observe a platinum door at the very back of the spa. Out of patience, they simply barge in, only to emerge in a filthy alleyway, locked outside the facility, naked and covered in various powders, wraps and sliced fruit. In her infinite wisdom, Frasier producer Roz Doyle sums up the arc of the episode, “The only reason you want to go is because you can’t.”
To me, “Door Jam” is an apt allegory for the emergence of metaverses and NFTs, which seem prone to the same sorts of status-based and exclusive upsells, as well as the fraud and emptiness that lurks beneath the surface or, rather, just beyond the door. And yet, even within architecture, opinions on the subject are divided. Everyone I talk to is adamant that virtual worlds are either the future of space creation as we know it or the most dishonest manifestation of manufactured scarcity to date. It seems impossible to make a categorical judgment about the space of metavers.
A metaverse is an interactive online space that allows for open participation and shared management. An NFT (non-fungible token) is a blockchain-secured digital asset existing in the metaverse; it can take the form of a piece of art, a currency, or simply a cool hat that your online avatar can wear wherever “you” go. While its exact parameters remain unclear, the metaverse is not a “new” invention per se. Backed by a relentless marketing campaign, they refer to older existing platforms, such as Second Life, a free and open source metavers that has been around since 2003. It’s even incorrect to refer to the metaverse as a singular entity. Over the past year, spurred by the brouhaha surrounding Facebook’s move to Meta, a legion of metavers have sprung up to serve an audience geared towards the expansion, capitalization, and relentless intrusion of big tech into the social lives of human beings.
Each self-designated metaverse contains a “spawn space” where each individual avatar entering that environment always begins. These spaces are clearly important areas of architectural investigation, as they offer valuable insight into the underlying value systems that constitute them. They are “constructed” by open participatory communities, whether or not they are designed by architects (Zaha Hadid Architects just designed a gallery for the NFT). Their architectures, like everything else in the game environment, are designed to curry favor with or advance the goals of these communities. So, in the spirit of research, I decided to take on the challenge. I bought a Quest 2 virtual reality system, hopped on Twitch, and jumped into the most popular metaverses of the moment. Here’s what I found.
The spawn space for Meta’s Horizon Worlds (the Facebook metaverse) looks like northern Arizona, with steep mesa walls surrounding an expansive valley lined with palm trees and cacti. My perch is located halfway up one of these cliffs, in typical Frank Lloyd Wright fashion. Yet the surrounding structure is arched and curved, and looks more like the Arcosanti Desert Oasis, which Wright’s protégé Paolo Soleri designed “as a deliberate critique of rampant consumer culture.” But, to my astonishment, the interior appears to have been created by Crate & Barrel: domed lamps, cushions, tweed sofas, yoga mats, a gas fireplace, and other “things” not found in modern life – the polar antithesis of the desert’s modernist ideal. Nothing about these interiors makes me happy, and nothing matches my mood. All of this is perfect for Meta, which allows users to buy, download and enhance their home environment to their liking. Hooray.
Cursed in the afterlife
My visit to Horizon Worlds started out quaint and wholesome: I entered a fun little shooting game and met a friendly person who looked like a child. Once the game was over, we were sent to another “lobby,” which is a real-world space where avatars can meet between matches. My friend chuckled when I said I liked low-poly trees, because to them, the massive shape of the conifers seemed obvious and unimportant. While we waited, my friend showed me how to perform routine tasks in the game, like checking the standings or throwing a football.
But as soon as I stepped away to explore other areas and meet adults, everything became completely cursed. I was immediately challenged. I reluctantly made my way to the Afterlife Club, a space oozing with lazy sci-fi tropes like illuminated hexagons and glowing node lights. I rushed to the female-presenting robot bartenders, hoping for a bright orange libation that would resemble something from the Jetsons. Behind me, a voice offered to buy me a drink. I turned around to see four or five male avatars with male voices and was instantly bombarded with transphobic slurs. You see, I am a male with long hair, just like my Horizon Worlds avatar, but I am shocked that this is enough for some people to judge me in the metaverse. I spent the next few minutes feeling helpless as I watched this bunch of ignorant bros harass any female avatar that came through the door. The last time I saw a bunch of seedy men treat others this way, I was at a real club in Vienna and my boisterous disapproval of their behavior landed me a night in the emergency room. This time the shock froze me in a way that filled me with embarrassment to say the least – what were they going to do, kick my ass? For underprivileged people, this entire space must be a nightmare. Harassment of this type is a well-documented problem in the metaverse and is both extremely concerning and sadly predictable.
Less than ten minutes into the experience, my adrenaline was pumping and I was starting to feel nauseous. I headed to the ski slopes of the metaverse, thinking a little fresh air might cheer me up. As I took the chairlift up a pop-up book-sized hill, I saw someone fall in front of me. I looked at him carefully, concerned for his incorporeal safety. Against all odds, they found a high point on the slope and prepared to get back on the chairlift, their eyes fixed on the empty spot next to me. As I approached my chair, I tried to help them up, but the mechanics of the game were poor and unfamiliar to me. I accidentally took their sticks and threw them one after another out of the elevator while pushing the person to the ground. How’s that for a pick-me-up? In a sullen mood and sick to my stomach, I took off my glasses, took a big swig of (real) beer and ate a double ginger cake. “What have I done?” I said aloud to myself, swirling with emotion.
The punk graveyard
After regaining my sea legs and an ounce of emotional confidence, I went to another metaverse called Decentraland, the “first fully decentralized world” of its kind. It’s not owned by a corporation, but by its users: a group of like-minded individuals who run a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) – essentially a blockchain-based business. I began by pressing the Random button on the avatar generator, which caused me to appear as an unfortunate creature whose geometric sock and pants collision wasn’t quite right, resulting in a strange texture near my shins. I felt like I was wearing a shirt that needed ironing. Nonetheless, along with a handful of visitors wearing the same suit, we found ourselves atop a hill overrun with clouds in all directions, perched safely on a small patch of land fenced off by three billboards resting on ridiculous Ionic columns. The signs, of varying heights, advertised events taking place on the land below. In the center, a circular pool of water spilled over itself, similar to the aesthetic vortex of Anish Kapoor’s 2014 installation Descension, but heavily triangulated. A cheeky diving board plunged users directly into the center of the vortex – an odd choice, since we didn’t expect to make a splash but rather to be sucked in.
This could be a contemporary acropolis. We could have instant access to unlimited information instead of structural stone columns. All we would need is a browser and an Internet connection instead of a painful climb to the top of a hill. Yet, rather than seeking wisdom, culture or philosophy, here in Decentraland they seek money and influence. This idea was reinforced by what I saw after jumping into the watery vortex: another piece of civic infrastructure designed as a bar (this one is simply called Genesis Plaza Bar) filled with garish decorations of the “line go up” meme culture – HODL, Musk, Doge, etc. Unlike the off-putting Afterlife Club, with its obnoxious slack-jawed characters, this place was empty and soulless.
I left the common area and headed to the rest of the game world, which includes several properties that any owner can build whatever they want on. And, yes, I mean landowner. You see, private property is taken to the extreme in this supposedly “free” space, which made me feel like I was walking around in Dark Age Europe: Access to these fiefdoms requires specific types of NFT currency. Everyone uses a different currency and competes for your attention, trying to create ever more desirable experiences to sell to you, or just to become the next viral meme. Even though property rights are already enforced through strict and impenetrable computer code, the presence of police cars circling the map was a telling sight. How do you reconcile calls for decentralization with the creeping valorization of existing power structures? How can something claim to be counter-cultural if it presents us with a ridiculously conventional, or just plain awful, version of the current world? Not exactly punk, is it?
Art in the age of the metaverse
To end my trip, I went to the Museum of Other Realities (MOR), a Vancouver-based virtual reality start-up designed with the help of VR artist Samuel Arsenault-Brassard. It was a welcome change of pace from the gamified social life I had just endured. While MOR is not the complete ownership model of other metaverse spaces, it is not designed to take over your social life. It’s a simple virtual reality art showcase – and that got me excited about the potential of 3D space in VR.
The shapes of the structure moved all around me. The artwork, by artists with years of experience in the field, was beautiful and vibrant. The scalar shifts filled me with joy, and the ability to change my avatar by drinking different potions (a la Alice in Wonderland) brought a monster smile to my face. This is what virtual spaces, arts, and interactions might look like if they weren’t designed to monetize the slightest interaction. Even in the metaverse, an art museum has a genuine civic purpose, while the spatial risks and implications explored are a healthy balance between experimental spatial games and familiar spatial navigation. There are no exit signs, fire pulls, or even overhead lights to get in the way of seeing this work of art. Even in the metaverse, what constitutes art remains
What are the right questions to ask when design professionals tackle future metaverse spaces? What is a world, and how do we define it? Of all the metavers I’ve visited, only MOR has provided some answers. But in general, I suggest that we remain skeptical about the next NFT that is just waiting to be unlocked. Instead, let’s be like Frasier, who at the end of “Door Jam” rails against the human compulsion to want more and more. “Why,” he asks his brother, “must we allow the thought of something that, so far, could only be an incremental improvement on what is here and now?” (To which Niles responds, with a foolish desire, “I don’t know. We’ll see about that on the other side.”) At almost every stage of the metaverse, someone is trying to take advantage of our desire to be included. What lies beyond the next Silver Gate could be the next big thing, but it’s far more likely to be hot garbage.
Ryan Scavnicky is the founder of Extra Office, a design studio that investigates the relationship between architecture and contemporary culture, aesthetics, memes, and media to find new agencies for critical practice. At Kent State University, he teaches theory, criticism, and architecture.
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