Living a purposeful life in the metaverse

by Sarah Firisen

My name is Sarah Firisen, and I’m 5ft 2 inches tall and work in software sales. But I’m also, or used to be, Bianca Zanetti, a 5ft 9 size 0 (which I’m also not), fashion designer and proprietor of a chain of stores, Fashion by B.   No, I’m not bipolar. Bianca Zanetti is my Second Life avatar.

My now ex-husband and I were very into Second Life around 14 years ago. Quickly, we realized an essential truth about the virtual world: much like the real world, it gets boring very fast without some kind of purpose. Yes, there was the initial amusement of learning how Second Life worked. We learned how to change our clothes, body shape, and hair. We learned how to control our avatars so we could fly. That was fun. We met a few people and made some friends. I’ve written before about the very real friendships that I made in my virtual life. But after a few weeks, we needed more. My ex had always been very interested in ancient Rome. He found an ancient Roman sim (themed digital plots of land), ROMA,  and became involved with the community. He bought a toga and eventually became a senator. A real-life archaeologist created the sim, and it attracted a large group of ancient history buffs. They enthusiastically took on role-playing from the senate to gladiators to high priestesses at one of the temples. When I checked into ROMA for this piece, it seems like the sim still exists and has an active community.

U.S. dollars could be traded for the in-world Linden currency, and Second Life had a vibrant economy. Virtual commerce was wide-ranging, from new hairstyles to clothes to waterslides. But if you were so inclined, everything and anything in Second Life was buildable by users.  Manipulating basic shapes and adding colors and textures, it was possible to create anything that an avatar could desire.  A scripting language could be attached to the objects in the same way that Javascript can be attached to HTML objects. Back then, I was a software developer and became fascinated with building and scripting. But I needed a purpose to my building. So I started making clothes for myself and then started selling them. To do that, I required stores in which to sell my clothes and scripts to enable people to buy my outfits. Before I knew it, Fashion by B was a serious hobby.

I would design and make outfits whenever I had spare time. I even started subscribing to Vogue for inspiration. After creating the clothes, I modeled them for photos other avatars could click to purchase my wares. At the height of my virtual business success, I had seven stores. I had designed all of them, including the flagship store I had built from the virtual ground up. I needed to be able to track sales in my stores, so I developed a sales tracking and reporting tool, Second Site. Before long, I was selling that to my fellow avatars.

Over the couple of years that I was active in Second Life, it became clear that anyone spending serious time in the virtual world was doing something meaningful. They might be role-playing, doing business, or being creative in some form or another. But you had to have some purpose of some sort. For everyone else, it disintegrated pretty quickly into gambling and having sex with virtual strangers (don’t ask.)

The author Neil Stephenson coined the phrase the “metaverse” in his iconic novel Snowcrash in 1992. Since then, the concept of plugging into an alternate reality has snowballed from books to movies to video games. The recent proliferation of ever lighter, cheaper, and better virtual reality headsets has brought these sci-fi concepts to life.

Most of our lives became far more virtual, in many ways, during COVID lockdown. Endless zoom meetings for work and school, telehealth and virtual dating and socializing, to name a few. But lockdown also saw increasingly creative uses of virtual worlds, “During the lockdowns, gaming platforms have been thriving as venues for all manner of events. Savvy teachers are holding online classes where their students are already spending their time: on game-focused sites like Twitch and Discord. People have held beach weddings inside Animal Crossing and concerts inside Fortnite. Students at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago and other universities built 3-D replicas of their school settings inside Minecraft, and some held graduation celebrations there.”

And, of course, there was the recent announcement by Facebook that it’s renaming and rebranding as Meta “to mark its change in focus from social media to “the metaverse.” Extrapolating the amount of time and energy most of us spend on Facebook to a Zuckerberg-led virtual world can be as scary a prospect as any dystopian fiction.

But there’s also a line of thought that asks, could we be living in a virtual reality already? And if not now, will humanity at some point in the future? As a twist on the classic “brain in a vat” conundrum of Philosophy 101 classes, would we know? And, beyond that, why should we care? As climate change progresses at a scary pace, is it so fantastical to think that at some point, the only way for humanity to continue in any meaningful way would be for us to move our conscious existence to a virtual plane while our bodies merely exist in what’s left of our planet?

A recent thought-provoking article posits, “Whenever it happens, the development of realistic V.R. will be earthshaking, for reasons both practical and profound. The practical ones are obvious: If people can easily flit between the physical world and virtual ones that feel exactly like the physical world, which one should we regard as real?”

If and when we get to this point, and our lives are lived virtually, the question of purpose in our virtual lives will be nothing more than the general question, “How do we make our lives have purpose?” Of course, if your choice of a virtual world is a massively multiplayer online game, MMO, the purpose is usually built in; it’s to fight or complete quests and challenges. But let’s assume that the future isn’t one where all of humanity lives in World of Warcraft (or is it?). Once we’re working, traveling, creating, socializing, volunteering, and loving in a virtual world, those will be our purposes in the virtual world as much as they now are or aren’t now in the real one.

But until this point, as the technology progresses and becomes more ubiquitous and accessible, it will be interesting to see how users create a sense of purpose in their increasingly virtual lives. Speaking for myself, maybe it’s time to restart my subscription to Vogue and reboot Fashion by B.