An 8-Year-Old Explains the Metaverse

“One minute you get scammed, another minute you’re having the best time of your life, making billions of dollars.”,

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Like a lot of people, I have been scrambling to get a grasp of the metaverse since Mark Zuckerberg made his move to colonize it by rebranding Facebook as Meta last week.

After days of reading gassy descriptions of this mysterious techno-realm as “an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content, you are in it,” as Mr. Zuckerberg himself once put it, I turned to someone who lives it every day: my 8-year-old son, Anton, thanks to his obsession with the gaming platform Roblox.

Anton and most of his third-grade friends in Brooklyn are proud members of Roblox’s behemoth 43 million daily active users, a population that has exploded during the pandemic. (Roblox’s base of daily users grew by 82 percent in the first nine months of 2020 alone.)

Such is the influence of Roblox that when he and his buddies experienced a three-day outage over the Halloween weekend, it was like their own version of the Cuban missile crisis.

Confused and anxious, they traded rumors of a stealth strike by a shadowy hacker collective. “But don’t put their name online,” Anton warned me. “You know what happens when hackers get mad.” (Roblox later clarified that the system was simply overwhelmed.)

Anyone who plays Roblox — or other wildly popular online games like Minecraft or Fortnite — already feels at home swapping the flat world of the websites and social media into something more immersive. Embracing augmented and virtual reality, we all, supposedly, will soon guide our almost-me computerized avatars through an endless array of digital dreamscapes seemingly conjured by Pixar — or Mr. Zuckerberg — to work, shop, travel, hang out with friends and (I’m guessing) eventually hook up.

Feeling hopelessly out of the loop already, I recently asked Anton to take me along to his digital Neverland. Hunkered over my iPhone on our living room sofa, Anton managed to distill the essence of this place, as competently as any venture capitalist steering a Tesla down Sand Hill Road.

“You get to go into a different world,” Anton said, just before we shed our wet-ware selves to vanish “Tron”-like into the pixels. “I mean, you don’t get to. But it seems like it.”

But where to land? Roblox contains millions of role-playing games from independent developers.

There are clearly games for children to avoid, like Jailbreak, the wildly popular role-playing game where, for those who choose the criminal path, the “role” is to break out of prison and the “play” is orchestrating robberies. Parents are also freaking out over the many Roblox iterations of “Squid Game,” based on the hyper-violent Netflix show.

But for screen time, Anton logged onto Bloxburg, a life-simulation game where his virtual life seems, if anything, a little mundane. His not-so-teeming virtual metropolis looked like Anytown, U.S.A., as rendered on AutoCAD, and his life there is not unlike that of any clock-punching grown-up in real life.

Nevertheless, he seemed almost giddy to steer his Lego-like avatar — sporting a physique that would turn John Cena Hulk-green with envy, thanks, he said, to another Roblox game, Weight Lifting Simulator — to a job at a joint called Pizza Planet.

His work shift took only minutes, thanks to the compressed time scale of Roblox, but his avatar kept busy feeding pizzas into an industrial-scale oven in a space age restaurant that apparently was automated enough that he could run the kitchen by himself. (I hoped that this was not a glimpse of real Anton’s future in a robot-dominated workplace.)

He was thrilled to earn enough Blocksbux (an in-game virtual currency that can be bought with the coin of the Roblox realm, Robux) to furnish his modest yellow ranch house with a “Happy Days”-style jukebox planted, curiously, on the backyard lawn, alongside a boxing heavy bag and a hammock. He clearly relished life there. “You make your own rules,” he said. “You can ride motorcycles, own a house, throw a party. You can get a job as an 8-year-old.”

Bloxburg does have nightlife, it seems. On another visit, we dropped in on a party at a hangar-like house that looked like a wing at MoMA furnished from an old Sears catalog.

The guests, needless to say, were total squares, since they, too, were block-bodied Roblox avatars. No one seemed to know anyone else, or interact. But based on their frozen grins, they apparently enjoyed jogging from room to room with the heavy-footed gait of a football nose tackle to do nothing in particular. No one seemed to notice when Avatar Anton perched himself behind a drum set and went full Lars Ulrich.

But I can do awkward parties in real life. I wanted a headier glimpse of our supposedly fantastical future in the metaverse, so we logged onto Adopt Me!, a confection of a game with Candy Land-esque graphics, where users collect and tend for pets, some ordinary, some mythical, spawned from eggs. “I just got offered a fluffy kitten,” Anton said, moments after logging on. “That’s how kid-friendly it is.”

On the surface, the game seemed to offer enough emphasis on early childhood development and affordable health care (you actually get paid to take your pet to the hospital, Anton told me) to please any red-rose progressive.

But at a deeper level, the game seemed to hum with a “Succession”-level spirit of scheming and avarice. As in Mr. Zuckerberg’s metaverse, much of the good stuff is for sale, in this case in the game’s virtual currency, which Anton informed me can be earned by accomplishing tasks in the game, or with real money, which can be siphoned from parents. (Last year, a Roblox-loving 6-year-old in Australia racked up an $8,000 bill from his parents’ bank account.) The real point is not to win or lose, but to covet and acquire.

And there are plenty of come-ons, just like in the real world. Anton explained that his starter egg, which spawned a puppy, was free, but if he wanted a cooler pet, he had to pay up. I could barely keep up with the moves he was making, but soon he informed me that he had dropped more money (about $3.50 in American dollars) to make it a winged Fly Ride Dog which he could soar on, like a Pegasus, through the game’s Whoville-esque village, ringing up cash as he snapped up water for the pet, or a shower.

An honest day’s work, however, only goes so far in Adopt Me! The more exotic the pet, the more the cost. Artificial scarcity drives up prices even further. Anton, for example, simply had to have a limited-edition frost fury, a wingless white dragon that once traded for $800 Robux ($9.99 in actual currency), but is now highly coveted and only available through trade for a hefty haul. Because it’s beautiful? “Because it’s rare,” he said.

This explains why players young and old look for any angle to build up a spectacular menagerie that even the Joneses would want to keep up with. Anton and his friends swap assets with zeal, consulting online value charts like pint-size Wall Street quants.

I found the mercantile spirit exhilarating, and wearying. And it made me think of the negative commentary over the past week from pundits who have expressed horror that the metaverse will turn out to be one more suffocating blanket of technology, cocooning humans from each other, and from the sensory pleasures of real life.

I had the opposite fear. Anton’s metaverse seemed to pulling his generation from a wide-eyed digital universe of Nintendo and “Moana” toward an all-too-real digital life where they were picking up hard lessons I was insulated from until my twenties.

Then again, Anton already aspires to become a Zuckerberg-scale entrepreneur (or maybe the second coming of Travis Barker). As he put it, “One minute you get scammed, another minute you’re having the best time of your life, making billions of dollars.”

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