I’m driving recklessly. The city unfolds as I whip past shops, offices, and other cars. All of a sudden, I see a heavy truck rushing towards me at top speed. I realize that I’m driving on the wrong side of the road. I immediately swerve to dodge the menacing lorry, and lose control of my hot pink sports car. The vehicle careens onto the sidewalk ploughing into a group of mindless pedestrians. A tiny star appears at the top-right corner of my screen. Here come the police, here I go again. A police chase is about to ensue. Nothing to worry about. It’s just another day in Los Santos, the fictional setting of Grand Theft Auto Online.
When in the spring of 2020 the first wave of Coronavirus sent several countries into lockdown, millions of gamers plugged into the virtual worlds of video games to find some respite from the poky rooms where they found themselves confined. My personal virtual hideaway was the parodically violent world of GTA Online, where I could not only break the 1.5 meter ruble, but all rules and laws imaginable.
Besides Los Santos, some gamers made landfall on the island of Animal Crossing: New Horizons the popular life simulation video game developed by Nintendo. Others preferred grabbing their pickaxes and started to mine a new reality from the pixelated worlds of Minecraft. Still, others embraced the cartoonish reality of Fortnite. Meanwhile, kids created digital abodes on Roblox, the child-friendly platform where you can make your own games and play games created by others.
The trend continued after the first months of hard lockdown. In this time of social distancing the virtual worlds of video games remained the spaces where people get together, go to the pub, watch movies, go to concerts, host talk shows, get their primary school diploma, graduate from university — and yes, occasionally crush a group of pedestrians.
Unsurprisingly, virtual worlds have been money-spinners since long before the pandemic. Rockstar has reportedly raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in microtransactions from GTA Online since its launch in 2013. Minecraft (bought by Microsoft for $ 2.5 billion in 2014) is not only the best-selling video game of all time (it sold more than 200 million copies) but a transmedia empire ranging from films to merchandise. In 2019 alone, Epic Games’ crown jewel Fortnite brought in a staggering $ 1.8 billion in revenue (mostly via battle passes and cosmetic items). Despite being controversially removed from Apple’s app store in 2020, the game still boasts hundreds of millions of active players. Per The Verge, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, one of the key symbols of social life in the time COVID-19, “catapulted Nintendo to stratospheric earnings” selling more than 22 million copies. Finally, Roblox is preparing to go public, aiming for nothing short of a $8 billion evaluation.
Analysts say that this is just the beginning. The virtual worlds of video games are being hailed as the harbingers of the internet of the future, a web on steroids, a sort of mythical place that executives, investors, and journalists call “the metaverse.”
The term comes from Snow Crash, a 1992 science fiction novel by American writer Neal Stephenson (if you’re not thrilled by the idea of enduring 400+ pages of cyberpunk literature, you’ll be delighted to know that HBO is working on a TV adaption of the book).
In the novel, Stephenson imagines a dystopian world where governments have been replaced by companies, delivery workers keep society running and people take shelter in the metaverse, a kind of massively multiplayer online game populated by avatars.
This essay is an overview of how we came to inhabit the virtual worlds of Fortnite, Minecraft & Co. and of how we came to think that the metaverse is the internet of the future.
I will start by briefly recapping the history of virtual worlds, from their origins in text-based Multi User Dungeon, to the now forgotten realism of games like Habitat and Worlds.com, to the present. We will also lay-over in virtual worlds that have decreased in popularity but are still orbiting, for better or worse (yes, Second Life, that's you). Beginning in the 70s, I will focus on one virtual world per decade. Obviously, this means that I won't be able to discuss many prominent virtual worlds (yes, World of Warcraft fans I'm talking to you) but I hope that the rationale behind my choices will be made sufficiently clear in the course of this text.
In the second section, I will scramble things up a bit, proceeding in a more idiosyncratic way —digging deeper into the concept of the “virtual world,” finding links between topics and spaces that at first glance may seem unrelated. Per the Belgian surrealist René Margritte’s reflections on his painting Elective Affinities:
One night, I woke up in a room in which a cage with a bird sleeping in it had been placed. A magnificent error caused me to see an egg in the cage, instead of the vanished bird. I then grasped a new and astonishing poetic secret, for the shock which I experienced had been provoked precisely by the affinity of two objects, the cage and the egg, to each other, whereas previously this shock had been caused by my bringing together two objects that were unrelated.
I invite you to call them “Magrittian affinities”.
While the idea of the metaverse as the next iteration of the internet envisions a future that echoes old cyberpunk dreams of the 80s, the second section of the essay, I will journey even further back in time, ending up in places like Cockaigne, the medieval land of plenty where life doesn’t bite, or the equally abundant reign of Prester John described by Italian writer Umberto Eco in his novel Baudolino.
In his book Deep time of the media, media theorist Siegfried Zielinski admonishes us to “not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old.” What Zielinski is arguing for is the conceptualization of media history not as a series of evolutionary, chronological steps but as intricate layers of developments made up of false starts, unrecognized trailblazers, hidden concepts, and seemingly unrelated antecedents that are woven together to produce history. This approach will inform my exploration of virtual worlds, too, especially when I will try to connect places that appear light years away from each other, like the medieval land of Cockaigne and GTA’s Los Santos.
A Short history of virtual worlds and their businesses
I will loosen it up in the second half of the essay but for now, we need a somewhat stringent definition of “virtual world.”
The most-cited academic definition comes from Mark W. Bell’s Toward a definition of Virtual World and is as follows: “[A virtual world is] a synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers.”
While this definition has been widely debated in academia over the years (see, for example, the recent paper by Carina Girvan What is a virtual world? Definition and classification), it’s not perfect but as far as this essay is concerned it does the job in allowing me to account for Fortnite, Worlds.com, GTA Online and Habitat.
According to this definition, the big bang of virtual worlds was in 1978 when Multi-User Dungeon — or MUD — was created by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle at the University of Essex, England. MUD, which ran on a colossal DEC PDP-10 mainframe, was a fantasy adventure game in which players roleplayed characters in a Dungeons & Dragon-esque setting. In fact, MUD was inspired by single-player computer games like Colossal Cave Adventure (1975) and Zork which in turn were inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, the pencil and paper role-playing game first published in 1974.
Like Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork, MUD was also text-based, no graphics whatsoever, just words. To appreciate the mix of creativity and unbridled enthusiasm that fuelled the world of text adventures (also known as “interactive fiction”), you should stop reading this essay, go on YouTube, and watch Get Lamp — a 2010 documentary about these pioneering computer games and the people who developed them. Come back when you’re done.
As you have seen in the documentary, MUD’s co-inventor Richard Bartle explains why he believes that text can be more powerful than 3D graphics, virtual reality, motion sensors or any other bleeding-edge technology in telling an interactive story. “No matter how far you take graphics, eventually the farthest you can get is text,” he says in Get Lamp,
“[Text] is really for people who got strong imagination and the tragedy is that many people have strong imagination, they just never get to play the text because they went for the graphics first,” he concludes.
But Bartle’s compelling arguments notwithstanding, the enthusiasm for text-based games petered out in the Eighties.
The advent of computer graphics revolutionized video games. New companies emerged, with few of them having been more influential in pushing the boundaries of computer-generated imaginaries across live-action cinema, animation, and video games than George Lucas’ LucasFilm. Even Pixar, the production studio that invented game-changing 3D computer graphics techniques and made Toy Story, the first entirely computer-animated feature-length film, was spun off from Lucasfilm’s Computer Division — a group established in 1979 with the aim of exploring computer graphics and developing cutting-edge technology for the film industry.
LucasFilm didn’t shy away from tinkering with video games either. Founded in 1982, LucasFilm Games — later renamed LucasArts has crafted some of the most iconic titles of all time, like Monkey Island, a series of adventure games that, in a way, inherited the spirit of text-based games like Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork.
Furthermore, and this is the reason we’re talking about it — LucasFilm Games created Habitat, usually credited as the first ever graphical virtual world of all time. The game, which was made available as a beta test in 1986, is a portal to a different era of the internet.
Nowadays, the virtual worlds of Fortnite, Minecraft, and others. are ubiquitous and one can evoke them just by tapping on an icon on their phone or tablet. On the contrary, when virtual demiurges Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer launched Habitat, going online was an ordeal in its own regard. Those were pre-Web times and to access Habitat one needed to use Quantum Link, a Commodore 64-exclusive, modem-based dial-in network that billed by the hour. Losing track of the time while playing could set Habitat’s citizens back more than $ 1,000 per month.
But what did the virtual world of LucasFilm Games look like? The Oakland-based Museum of Digital Art and Entertainment has been working with the game’s creators to relaunch Habitat in order to let new people experience it and to preserve it as part of our digital heritage (the challenges of preserving computational history — between arcane languages, obsolete software platforms and intricate copyright issues— deserves its own essay), so you can actually enjoy Habitat first-hand. If retro-gaming is not your cup of tea, you should at least watch this gem of a promotional video that introduced viewers to the “strange, new world” of Habitat, a place “where the keynotes of existence are fantasy and fun.”
In Habitat, players could pick an avatar (incidentally, Habitat was one the very first games to use the word to describe the figure that represents the players in a virtual world; a few years later, the term was further popularized by Stephenson in Snow Crash) and take part in a parallel society with an alternative economy and even its own newspaper. You could interact with other players (occasionally killing and robbing them à-la GTA), take part in quests and games and, in general, simply enjoy a second life.
Habitat ultimately proved to be too expensive to be financially viable and it went offline in 1988, just a couple of years after its beta release. Quantum Link then published a stripped-down version of the game under the name of Club Caribe. It also licensed the title to Japanese electronics maker Fujitsu. When the equally short-lived Fujitsu Habitat was released in Japan, it was already 1990.
The Eighties — the years of Ronald Reagan, the Commodore 64 and penne alla vodka — were over. The new decade was to be characterized by ubiquitous sun-dried tomatoes, the first PlayStation, and the World Wide Web with the last enabling a smorgasbord of new virtual worlds — now in 3D. Graphics aside, the virtual worlds of the Nineties were broadly similar to Habitat in that the basic ideas remained the same: creating virtual spaces where people could get together, play games and, en passant, invent a parallel society.
Some of these worlds, like Worlds.com and Active Worlds, are still orbiting in the online ether and every now and then YouTubers venture in these semi-abandoned lands, flaneuring across places that were once teeming with life but that today are often eerily deserted. These video dispatches from the virtual worlds of the 90s are under the sign of hauntology, the concept coined by French philosopher Jacques Derridda to describe how the present is haunted by the ghosts of lost futures. Wandering around the virtual ruins of the 90s, a cyberflaneur has the feeling of being immersed in a future that never was, an alternate timeline where social media never happened and Worlds.com and Active Worlds had already made the metaverse a reality 25 years ago.
Alas, the turn of the millennium brought about a spate of business failures and several successful virtual worlds began to decline in popularity. Was the dream of the metaverse destined to burst along with the dot-com bubble? Not really, as just a couple of years into the new millenium, two era-defining virtual worlds were already on the horizon. Obviously, I’m talking of Second Life (2003) and World of Warcraft (2004).
While World of Warcraft was an alternate universe for budding dragon slayers, Second Life became an extension of society by other means. Considering that this essay is mainly about “socializing” rather than “questing” in virtual worlds, I will focus on Second Life.
Like in our contemporary worlds, in Second Life players could go to concerts, hang-out with friends and attend political rallies (it also became somewhat notorious for being the place where one could indulge in all kinds of extravagant kinks).
The mainstream media sent special correspondents to the far-away land of Second Life and filmmakers shot documentaries entirely within the virtual world (e.g. Douglas Gayeton’s Molotov Alva).
Furthermore, it may be surprising but Second Life is also one of the progenitors of Fortnite. As recalled, by Cory Ondreijka, Second Life’s former CTO:
In early 2001, we’d test the prototype of Second Life [...] by battling each other in a hybrid FPS/building game.
Soon after, we expanded scripting, building, and avatars came along and the modern version of Second Life was born, focused on letting people create. We had some pretty fun chats with Epic Games' Tim Sweeney [the company behind Fortnite] about blending engine, tools, and game into one experience right as Unreal Engine was exploring the same space from a different direction.
A decade later, Epic Games' Mark Rein let me play a prototype of Fortnite that blended ideas from various Epic Games, SL, and Minecraft into a really different game.
Thus, hopping from world to world, we have landed in Fortnite and reached the current generation of virtual worlds, the precursors of the metaverse.
Virtual Worlds as a Land of Plenty
During the pandemic, barflies rebuilt their local pubs on Minecraft, friends started visiting each other's islands on Animal Crossing, and fans flocked to the concerts of their favorite musicians on Fortnite.
This was possible because, unlike from social media and video calling applications, the virtual worlds of video games are spatial, meaning that players can move across them and have a feeling of how fellow players are positioned in the space.
Since spatiality is an important dimension of social life, it is no surprise that many people preferred hanging out with their friends in these virtual worlds rather than being stuck in the umpteenth Zoom meeting. Incidentally, restoring a sense of spatiality in online interactions is one of the reasons why Jaron Lanier—the founding father of virtual reality, now a scientist at Microsoft Research—came up with the Together mode for Microsoft Teams.
But if we want to dig deeper into the concept of virtual worlds, we need to look at the past, before computer-generated realms, as escape to alternate realms can already be found in very different epochs.
For example, people in the Middle Ages — especially peasants exhausted by backbreaking labor in the fields — often dreamed of faraway realms where plenty of food was readily available, nobody had to work and there were no hardships. One of these fabled places was Cockaigne, a land where “the wine flows freely, sex is readily available, all people enjoy eternal youth” and — in what is arguably its most striking feature — “the roofs are made of custard pies.” In short, the world of Cockaigne was a hedonic paradise, a sort of profane version of the Garden of Eden.
Italian writer Umberto Eco explored many more fantasies that populated the medieval imagination in his novel Baudolino. Set in the 13th century, the eponymous character (a talented Italian peasant boy) and his ragtag band of friends set out to locate the legendary kingdom of Prester John, a phantasmagorical land populated by wondrous creatures and ruled by an immensely wealthy Christian sovereign.
Baudolino features several themes that are characteristic of Eco’s literary production like the way fictional stories end up creating new realities. Along similar lines, Eco investigates also how medieval utopias helped people forget about the miseries of the world they lived in. As Baudolino himself acknowledges: “I devoted my nights to imagining other worlds[...] There is nothing better than imagining other worlds [...] to forget the painful one we live in.”
Let’s now leap from the Middle Ages of Cockaigne and the Kingdom of Prester John to the future. It’s the year 2045. Climate change and a global energy crisis are bringing the Earth to its knees and people escape this grim condition by fleeing to OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), a virtual world that started as an online gaming platform but evolved into a fully-fledged simulated reality. OASIS brims with energy, colors, and fun—all things that are scarce in the physical world.
This is not (hopefully) a glimpse into the actual future but the premise of Ready Player One, a 2011 sci-fi novel by Ernest Cline, adapted by Steven Spielberg for the screen in 2016.
Both the film and the book (which has just been followed up by the sequel unimaginatively titled, Ready Player Two) are anything but masterpieces. Still, they can help us understand the role that the virtual worlds of video games have been playing during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been our OASIS, the dreamlike place where everything that is momentarily scarce in the real world (space, travels, events, concerts, social interactions) is generously provided.
These conditions have prompted several journalists and analysts to enthusiastically talk about the coming of the metaverse, hailed as an alternative world that humanity will be able to colonize once the Earth becomes inhabitable, be it because of a pandemic, climate change or any of the other problems that pose an existential risk to Homo Sapiens.
In this sense, the rhetoric about the coming of the metaverse is akin to the beliefs that fueled the legend of Cockaigne and the other chimerical worlds of medieval imagination. We see it in the promotional video of Habitat that promised players a world where the keynotes of existence were “fantasy and fun,” the same principle is echoed by a recent commercial of Facebook Horizon (Zuckerberg’s virtual reality social world) and — generally speaking, it is a tenet of all video games’ virtual worlds. This is today’s Cockaigne: the dream of transcending the pain, mortality, and other limitations of our physical existence via a virtual escape.
But as Georgia Tech’s professor Janet Murray remarked:
When people talk in intoxicated terms about the metaverse, they are imagining a magical Zoom meeting that has all the playful release of Animal Crossing. But if there is one thing we can all learn from this pandemic, it is that reality is reality, and we cannot generate an alternate media-scape in which we can hide from the mortal perils of embodiment.
In other words, the metaverse can’t be a solution to our existential anguish nor the place where we will take shelter once we have screwed up the planet for good.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that virtual worlds can’t help us change the real world for the better. Not only virtual worlds allow us to stay connected in meaningful ways when a deadly virus is running riot, but they could also be used as tools to imagine better societies. In a world where it is often difficult to imagine alternatives to our current systems of government and economy (of course, the reference here is to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism), virtual worlds have the capacity to implement and test new ideas about social life. In other words, they could become venues where to run ‘what if’ experiments (e.g. what if we imagined a gameplay not based on the personal accumulation of points). Far from being pipe dreams, ‘what if’ scenarios can be used to imagine the near future in a concrete way.
This approach may not seem incompatible with virtual worlds like Minecraft, Fortnite and others that are run by behemotian corporations but if we look at history, we realize that this has not always been the case. The possibility of being political statements is in the DNA of the virtual worlds of video games.
After all, that’s the reason why Richard Bartle designed MUD, the first virtual world ever, as a place in which players could succeed according to their abilities and efforts rather than birthrights or social class. “We wanted the things that were in MUD to be reflected in the real world,” said Bartle in an interview to Eurogamer,
I wanted to change the world. MUD and every subsequent MMO design are a political statement [...] There's so much you can do with virtual worlds. But it's not being done. I wanted them to be places of wonder in which people could go to truly be themselves, away from societal pressure or judgment. My idea was that if you could truly find yourself in a virtual world you might be able to then take that back into the real world.
And the Italian peasant boy Baudolino agrees with Bartle: “I devoted my nights to imagining other worlds [...] I hadn’t yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.”
Davide Banis works as editor for a digital publishing house. When time allows, he writes for magazines and other media outlets both in English and Italian.
 Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media: toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006.
 Bell, Mark W. “Toward a Definition of ‘Virtual Worlds.’” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 1, no. 1 (July 2008): 2–5. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.4101/jvwr.v1i1.283.
 Girvan, Carina. “What Is a Virtual World? Definition and Classification.” Educational Technology Research and Development 66, no. 5 (2018): 1087–1100. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11423-018-9577-y.
 Derrida, Jacques. Spectres of Marx: : The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. New York City, NY: Routledge, 1994.
 Corrie, Marilyn, “Land of make-believe”, The Guardian, August 11, 2001, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/aug/11/historybooks1.
 Eco, Umberto. Baudolino. Milan: Bompiani, 2000.