Field investigation fuels social studies of metaverse

By ZHANG RUOTIAN / 10-27-2023 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Players put on a virtual combat game show at Shougang Park Blast Furnace No. 1, the SoReal Metaverse Paradise. Photo: CFP

The ebb and flow of heated discussions about the “metaverse” reflects people’s mixed feelings on the topic. A combination of curiosity, concern, and interest in the future development of technology and human society has led to many unanswered questions. People are eager to know: How will the metaverse integrate with daily life? Will it become a reality in the near future? And will its arrival change our lives?

Insufficient discussion

The year 2021 was referred to as the “first year of the metaverse,” with many internet giants jumping into the metaverse race. Facebook even changed its company name to Meta — to embrace this seemingly imminent new era. However, as capital and media shifted their focus to newer, more explosive technologies and concepts, the buzz around the metaverse gradually waned. It wasn’t until June 2023, when Apple announced a virtual reality headset which claimed to fuse reality with the virtual world, that the metaverse was once again brought back into the public eye.

Today, projections of the metaverse can be categorized into three types of analysis. First, artists  attempt to sketch the future of the metaverse and society’s transition to this new virtual reality through novels and films. Basically, these artists critique reality by building a stark contrast between the real and the fantasy world, provoking reflection. Next, technical experts believe that technology is the most important force determining the future of humanity. They believe in a simulated reality built on technology rather than a conceptual metaverse. Finally, philosophers have made their own projections. They are concerned with fundamental human issues and worry that the virtual new world might bring new problems and unseen challenges to human society. 

The metaverse portrayed in science fiction movies and novels is essentially a subjective reflection of human imagination, while scientists and engineers attempt to decipher the contours of the metaverse by analyzing technological trends. However, neither of these perspectives can truly tell us what the arrival of the metaverse means for human society. As individuals responsible for our own destinies and as a community composed of numerous individuals, where are we heading? Philosophical propositions and theories that focus on fundamental issues of human survival are by all means helpful, but they tend to discuss abstract concepts and illusive progress. These thought experiments lack necessary experiential foundations.

The ongoing discussions about the metaverse seem to be stuck in an intellectual maze. People are interested in the metaverse, but most analyses belong to the imaginations of “outsiders,” such as literary creators, and these do not help us truly understand, comprehend, and predict what human social life will actually look like in the era of the metaverse. In fact, only through the practice of studying people’s experiences and feelings in virtual reality can we truly understand the meaning of a certain metaversal life scene. In other words, the solution to this dilemma is to conduct a “field investigation” of the metaverse, but this virtual experience does not fully exist yet. Drawing upon first-hand experience, we can reveal the metaverse’s possible life scenes, to understand and predict its real meaning for humanity. This is a prerequisite to conducting a substantive analysis of metaverse-related issues, but current debates often overlook this.

Sense of immersion

In 1992, American novelist Neal Stephenson published “Snow Crash,” introducing the concept of the “metaverse” which had a popular resurgence online in 2021, and has only grown in popularity since then. Stephenson depicted a scenario where, beyond the real world, a parallel three-dimensional digital space existed. The real world was chaotic and desolate, but in this digital space a colorful virtual world prevailed, where people could enjoy life through the use of digital avatars. This scenario closely resembles the image many people still have about a future metaverse, where humans can enter a simulated world through technology, retaining their physical bodies while experiencing another rich and diverse world. However, until the technology matures, this remains a fantasy.

Today, we often see people in university cafeterias, waiting in train stations, on subway cars, and in other public spaces, gazing at a 6-inch screen. They appear engrossed, laughing, or completely immersed in their smartphones. Are the experiences they are already having in the digital world artificial?

If we examine these two scenarios from the perspective of human consciousness, is there a fundamental difference between them? We acknowledge that humans can interact socially and have real experiences and real sensations without being physically present, and thus the current internet space, even if not a complete form of the metaverse, can be seen as a “quasi-metaverse.” Many people may not consider today’s cyberspace to be “the metaverse” because technology users do not achieve complete immersion through devices such as smartphones or computers. These critics argue that technology users perceive the physically present world as real and consider cyberspace to be artificial. However, for individuals who are addicted to the internet, this assumption may not hold.

“Internet addicts” typically refer to those who are addicted to the online world and find it difficult to detach. Their attention to cyberspace may far exceed their physical presence in real space. The emotional energy they derive from the internet is often higher than that drawn from physical interactions. Even their daily dining habits may align more with the temporal rhythms of cyberspace. More importantly, for this group, the experiences and knowledge they obtain from the internet are real. In other words, they have already created their own “metaverse.” Thus, internet addicts and their experiences offer the possibility for us to conduct a preliminary “field investigation” into the reality of a future in the metaverse, even before the technology matures.

Role playing in the metaverse

In these internet addicts, we see glimpses of people’s future behavior — actively immersing their consciousness into virtual spaces distinct from physical presence. As we imagine a future world, as outsiders, we can never fully understand the experiences of actors within it, or the meaning people in the metaverse will assign to their actions. However, through the lens of internet addicts, we can conduct participatory observation and acquire an immersive understanding.

Among the various behaviors indicative of internet addiction, online gaming addiction is most noteworthy, as online games demand a high degree of attention. Those who seem “indifferent to the boundary between reality and virtuality” can achieve a seamless connection between the virtual and real world, even without advanced future technologies. For these individuals, the game world is a long-lasting and effective metaverse. Furthermore, many games have strong social attributes, and players are not isolated but form communities through both online and offline interactions. Studies of gaming addiction thus help us observe individuals’ experiences and also delve into complex digital social interactions and collective behaviors.

Take a sandbox simulation strategy game, set against the backdrop of ancient China’s chaotic times, as an example. In this game, players assume the role of a “lord,” directing their generals and armies with the goal of expanding their territory. Players must form alliances to collectively confront players from rival camps. Outside of the game, players have their distinct social identities, such as students, professors, or corporate employees. However, the moment they enter the game, they immediately undergo a transformation, becoming alliance managers, policymakers, front-line generals, and diplomatic envoys. It is easy to see how this group can serve as a substitute for the study of the metaverse.

In science fiction novels and films, the virtual world of the metaverse is often portrayed as disconnected from the real world, with individuals dedicating more of their time and energy to the metaverse, leading to the inevitable decline of the real world, which slowly unravels and becomes a desolate neglected place. However, gaming addicts present an alternative perspective. Players who shuttle between the game and real life make earnest efforts to break down the barriers between the virtual and the real. To these gaming addicts, the notions of virtuality and reality cease to matter; the key is whether they can derive genuine happiness through their investments of time, energy, and sometimes money.

A survey of a 200-member WeChat group revealed that over 130 spent more than 12 hours online playing games daily. At least 30 players had paid more than RMB 20,000 to games. On a particular workday, the group required members to go online at 3 am to complete an in-game event. Nearly 160 people showed up. The dedication of time, energy, and money reveals that the game world provides players with a sense of purpose that the real world often cannot offer. In the gaming universe, players can gain “real” power, reputation, honor, emotional connections, and social support. In this way, games are transformative, as they allow players to convert time and money into valuable experiences that may never be accessible in the real world.

As society evolves, most people’s basic material needs can be met in the real world. However, resources such as power and reputation, which possess a certain draw, remain elusive for many individuals. In the real world, these might be a distant dream. However, the emergence of the metaverse caters to these needs. For researchers, understanding the concrete actions and habits of gaming addicts and analyzing the subjective intentions and experiences behind these actions can explain the potential value of the virtual world. At the same time, it can also provide insights into the ways the metaverse can satisfy people’s emotional and intellectual needs, and offer a sense of purpose they cannot find in the real world, to explore the social dynamics of the metaverse.

In summary, compared to the imaginations of “outsiders,” immersive observations of the metaverse may be crucial for understanding our future society. Field investigation may be a feasible way to enrich social science theories and methods, and can expand the boundaries of our sociological imagination.

Zhang Ruotian is from the Center for Studies of Sociological Theory & Method at Renmin University of China.

Edited by YANG XUE