When Mark Zuckerberg took the attention of the world and wrenched it into the metaverse in October, it cast new light on some of the other tech companies that, while not renamed after the somewhat nebulous new virtual realm, are nonetheless hoping to be in the business of it. Lots of those companies aren’t in Silicon Valley, they’re in China.
Tencent Holdings Ltd. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. already maintain gargantuan online worlds where hundreds of millions gather, play, chat, work and shop. ByteDance Ltd. owns the video social networking service TikTok and recently purchased China’s largest virtual-reality headset maker. Video game maker NetEase Inc. has taken out metaverse-related trademarks, as has search engine company Baidu Inc. Even Huawei Technologies Co. has been talking itself up as a metaverse company—its networking equipment will be the connective tissue of the new digital realm.
The only wrinkle for these companies is that the Chinese government, at whose pleasure they remain in business, may not share Zuckerberg’s excitement about the prospect of an immersive, real-time universe of virtual worlds.
In recent months, the government of Xi Jinping has taken a series of steps to try to reduce the role that social media and the internet more broadly have in the lives of China’s citizens. The nation’s video game regulator recently tightened its already strict rules, mandating that anyone under 18 is only allowed to play online games for an hour a night between Friday and Sunday. State media is full of denunciations of “fandom chaos,” the Communist Party’s dark term for the online communities of fervent fans of Chinese pop singers and actors. The government has gone so far as to erase some of the country’s biggest stars from its internet entirely.
“There is a sense that internet culture and fan culture is kind of uncivilized, decadent and distracting from what China needs to do,” says Adam Segal, a China and cybersecurity expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, “and gaming plays into that as well.”
China’s reticent approach to gaming, accompanied by encouragement for young people to go out and partake in real-world sports, is perhaps a preview of its view of the metaverse. It’s an attitude that stands in stark contrast to the vision of Zuckerberg and others who believe that massively multiplayer games and platforms like Fortnite and Roblox are the closest existing approximation of our digital futures. Already, it’s possible to see the outlines of a metaverse culture war emerging.
In one corner would be the authoritarians eager to limit the metaverse, or perhaps even to use it as a pretext for expanding existing prohibitions. The always-on nature of the imagined virtual world, its blurred boundary with so-called meatspace, could represent possible new frontiers of surveillance and restrictions. Robert Williams, a China policy researcher at Yale Law School, points out in an email that the definition of what now constitutes problematic online gaming could end up broadening “in a social context where the lines between physical and digital reality are somewhat blurred.”
In the other corner would be metaverse evangelists like Zuckerberg. In his big-reveal presentation at Facebook’s Connect conference two months ago, he extolled the ways the metaverse would allow us to collaborate more smoothly, learn in more immersive ways, work out more creatively and play more interactively. He spoke to the world while backlit by golden digital sunbeams, walking long virtual hallways that looked like Valhalla as designed by West Elm. Discussing privacy and safety, he talked about the kind of control he wanted users to have in the metaverse. “You’ll get to decide,” he said, “when you want to be with other people, when you want to block someone from appearing in your space or when you want to take a break and teleport to a private bubble to be alone.” Left off that list was the option of logging out of the metaverse entirely.
Indeed, between the authoritarian scolds and the big-tech metaverse boosters, it’s possible to feel a bit of whiplash. Personally, I find both visions a bit creepy, both of them potential paths to a future where we have less choice, not more.
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