New World Same Humans #15

Video games, simulated worlds, and the search for meaning.

Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.

This week I write about simulated worlds, spiritual meaning, fever dreams and AI music. 

Plus, my own brush with the coronavirus (maybe). Let's go!

Building the metaverse

Imagine this. Just before the pandemic put everything on lockdown, you made a bold decision. You bought a one-way ticket to a desert island from a mysterious businessman, and took the next flight. On arrival, you found the tropical island of your dreams. Since then you’ve spent the pandemic lovingly turning this place into a home: clearing land, building a cabin, planting yourself a beautiful garden. You fish for your dinner, and spend part of each day befriending the local animals. Every evening you pause to watch a radiant sunset.

Too good to be true? In fact, millions have spent much of the pandemic in this world; or, at least, a simulated version of it. They are the players of the new social simulation game Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which sees players explore their own tropical paradise. New Horizons is the fifth instalment in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing series, and it sold 5 million digital copies in four weeks when it was released in March. That’s more in an opening month than any other console game in history.

The pandemic has seen a boom in social simulation games: a species of video game that asks players to control the life of a character inside a simulated world. New Horizons has been the great beneficiary. But there have been others. Some have turned to older examples of the genre, such as the now-iconic The Sims. EA, the software company behind that game, cut the price to just $5 when the pandemic began.

That these games are popular right now is no great surprise. After all, people have time on their hands, and numbers for video games of all kinds are up. But many report that there’s something about these games in particular that make them right for the pandemic. Watch the trailer for New Horizons and it’s not hard to see why: to play the game is to step into a new reality where life is governed by predictable and soothing routines: cultivate the land, water your garden, go to the beach. And, of course, there’s the social aspect. New Horizons allows multiple human players to inhabit the same island, meaning some are using it as way to hang out with friends without leaving their homes. Even the WHO has endorsed the idea of video games as a means to maintain social contact during lockdown.

So what does all this tell us? The success of New Horizons taps into an ongoing NWSH obsession with simulations and how they’ll shape our shared future.

In part, they’ll do that by acting as a powerful tools for future forecasting. London-based tech company Improbable’s simulation software is currently being used by the UK government to help model the pandemic. And as our ability to build complex simulated realities grows, we’ll see more of this. Indeed, some social scientists believe that building highly complex simulations will allow us to discern deep, underlying patterns in human history. Such models, they say, will enable us to predict political revolutions and financial crashes.

But in the decades ahead, simulated worlds will be even more than highly sophisticated tools. And even more, indeed, than just games. I’m fascinated by the way these worlds will become – are becoming – domains of experience and meaning.

We see a glimpse of that right now with New Horizons. Players say the gentle imperatives imposed by the game can lend them exactly the sense of routine, purpose and achievement that they lack in lockdown. The same phenomenon is at work in the hugely successful live concert just given by Travis Scott inside video game Fortnite. Over 12 million people entered the game to watch a digital version of Scott debut a new song and move through a series of visually stunning environments during a 10-minute performance that culminated in a trip into space. Just as with DJ Marshmello’s 2019 concert inside the game, Scott’s audience received all this as an authentic cultural event, something akin to going to a real concert.  Epic Games, the people behind Fortnite, have already made it clear they want their creation to be ‘more than just a game’. The ultimate goal, says CEO Tim Sweeney, is ‘to build something like the metaverse’. That is, a virtual space that becomes, for its inhabitants, almost as real as the real world itself.

That’s where we are today. But in the years ahead we can expect simulated worlds to become even more important domains of experience and meaning. Two forces are pushing in that direction.

First, the technology. The Travis Scott concert was impressive, but it still took place within the four corners of a screen. As VR and AR technologies evolve, though, we’ll be able to build truly immersive virtual worlds that deliver something far closer to real experience. The recent travails of AR company Magic Leap show how hard these technologies are to perfect. But we're likely to get there eventually.

Those advances will intersect with another megatrend reshaping the 21st-century; one that I wrote about in a recent mid-week note. That is, automation, and attendant human redundancy. In the decades ahead hundreds of millions of educated young people will find themselves with no route into the traditional economy. I think we’ll see some among them seek structure, purpose and status inside virtual worlds, instead.

We’re building an economy that can be productive with reduced human input. Meanwhile, virtual worlds are becoming ever-more compelling. The social implications of these two facts feel closely related. At what point do those virtual worlds, for those who inhabit them, become more important, meaningful, and real, than reality itself?

After all, these simulations would offer not only an escape from automation-induced purposelessness, but from the predicament that underlies all experience within modernity. That is, meaninglessness. The scientific revolution that made modernity possible stripped us of the pre-modern sense that we humans can orient ourselves within a framework of cosmic meaning. Modernity brought us vast power, but also left us wondering: what is the point of all this

But when we can build convincing virtual worlds, we’ll also be able to design the meaning back in. What about a world in which good behaviour really is rewarded, and bad punished? A world in which prayers are answered. In which there can be authentic experience of something we recognise as God. Too monotheistic for you? No problem; rival world designers will be free to design worlds in which the spiritual reality is governed by sprites, demons and fairies, or mythological ancestors, or a vibrating energy accessible only once inside the central chamber of an ancient temple. Take your pick. To what extent will the real world fade from view when virtual worlds can offer these kinds of experiences, and allow people to share them with millions of others?

We’re a long way from all that now. But in the way some players are inhabiting New Horizons during the pandemic, we catch a glimpse of what is possible.

That should, of course, cause us to ask some pressing questions. If we’ve taken any lessons from the evolution of the internet, first among them should be questions about power. Who will build and control these new virtual worlds, which could become vast platforms on which billions connect, create, and trade? How will they be governed? Who will profit?

Some familiar names are part of that conversation. Last month Facebook began user testing of Horizon, a massive-multiplayer virtual world built on the Oculus VR platform.

There's no doubt that the emergence of compelling simulated worlds can mean amazing creative and spiritual possibilities. But someone will write the cheques, control the currency, and own the IP. We should start thinking about all that now.

Take two

Last week I announced the launch of a new weekly online show, What’s NEXT.

The universe heard my plans and laughed. By Monday I’d come down with a cough, a mad fever, and insane fatigue. Yes, we think it was the virus! But without a test, there’s no way to be sure.

Cue a postponement.

The worst of it lasted for a few days; now I’m now improving. What’s NEXT Episode 1 is rescheduled for Thurs 7 May at 5pm CEST (that’s 5pm Berlin time). It's going to be a great show; see you there!

Hot tub time

Time for me to go. A quick snippet for your family Zoom call: AI research lab OpenAI have created Jukebox, a model that can write genre-specific pop songs complete with lyrics and artificial singing voice. 

My favourite is Classic Pop, in the style of Frank Sinatra, which reveals an artificial mind obsessed with hot tubs (though the song lyrics are ‘co-written’ by OpenAI staff, so who is really obsessed?).

Given its machine origins the song is a surreal experience at the best of times. But I can tell you that listening to it with a high fever is something else. I leave you, then, with this strange, alpine-infused, AI-fuelled glimpse of the high life:

Some people like to go skiing in the snow
But this, this is much better than that
So grab your bathrobe and meet me by the door
Oh, it’s hot tub time!

Be well this week,


P.S: there's nothing simulated about the brilliance of Nikki Ritmeijer, who created the illustrations in this email.

David Mattin sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.