china and the metaverse -- 8/10/23
Today's encore selection -- from The Metaverse by Matthew Ball. At the very moment companies such as Facebook were staking their futures on the metaverse, China’s Communist Party was cracking down on gaming:
"In July 2021, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: 'In this next chapter of our company, I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company. And obviously, all of the work that we're doing across the apps that people use today contribute directly to this vision.' Shortly thereafter, Zuckerberg publicly announced a division focused on the Metaverse and elevated the head of Facebook Reality Labs -- a division that works on miscellaneous futuristic projects including Oculus VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality) glasses, and brain-to-machine interfaces -- to chief technology officer.
"In October 2021, Zuckerberg proclaimed that Facebook would be changing its name to Meta Platforms to reflect its shift to this 'Metaverse.' To the surprise of many Facebook shareholders, Zuckerberg also said that his investments in the Metaverse would reduce operating income by over $10 billion in 2021, while warning that these investments would grow for several more years.
"Zuckerberg's bold pronouncements drew the most attention, but many of his peers and competitors had launched similar initiatives and made similar announcements in the months prior. In May, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella began to speak of a Microsoft-led 'enterprise Metaverse.' Likewise, Jensen Huang, CEO and founder of computing and semiconductor giant Nvidia, had told investors that 'the economy in the Metaverse ... [will] be larger than the economy in the physical world?' and that Nvidia's platforms and processors would be at the heart of it. In the fourth quarter of 2020 and first quarter of 2021, the gaming industry had two of its largest-ever initial public offerings (IPOs) in Unity Technologies and Roblox Corporation, both of which wrapped their corporate histories and ambitions in Metaverse-related narratives.
"Throughout the remainder of 2021, the term 'Metaverse' almost became a punchline as every company and its executives seemed to trip over themselves to mention it as something that would make their company more profitable, their customers happier, and their competitors less threatening. Prior to Roblox's IPO filings in October 2020, the 'Metaverse' had appeared only five times in US Securities and Exchange Commission filings. In 2021, the term was mentioned more than 260 times. That same year, Bloomberg, a software company that provides financial data and information to investors, catalogued more than a thousand stories containing the word Metaverse. The prior decade had only seven.
"Interest in the Metaverse was not limited to Western nations and corporations. In May 2021, China's largest company, the internet gaming giant Tencent, publicly described its vision of the Metaverse, calling it 'Hyper Digital Reality.' The following day, South Korea's Ministry of Science and ICT (Information and Communications Technology) announced 'The (South Korean) Metaverse Alliance,' spanning over 450 companies including SK Telecom, Woori Bank, and Hyundai Motor. In early August, South Korean gaming giant Krafton, maker of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (also known as PUBG) completed its IPO, the second largest in the country's history. Krafton's investment bankers made sure to tell would-be investors that the company would also be a global leader in the Metaverse. In the ensuing months, Chinese internet giants Alibaba and ByteDance, the parent company of the global social network TikTok, both began to register various Metaverse trademarks and acquire various VR and 3D-related startups. Krafton, meanwhile, committed publicly to launching a 'PUBG Meta verse.'
"The Metaverse captured more than the imagination of technocapitalists and sci-fi fans. Not long after Tencent publicly unveiled its vision of hyper-digital reality, the Communist Party of China (CCP) began its biggest-ever crackdown of its domestic gaming industry. Among several new policies was a prohibition on minors playing video games Monday through Thursday that also limited their play from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights (in other words, it was impossible for a minor to play a video game for more than three hours per week). In addition, companies such as Tencent would use their facial recognition software and a player's national ID to periodically ensure that these rules were not being skirted by a gamer borrowing an older user's device. Tencent also pledged $15 billion in aid for 'sustainable social value,' which Bloomberg said would be focused on 'areas like increasing incomes for the poor, improving medical assistance, promoting rural economic efficiency and subsidizing education programs.' Alibaba, China's second-largest company, committed a similar amount only two weeks later. The message from the CCP was clear: look to your countrymen and women, not virtual avatars.
"The CCP's concerns about the growing role of gaming content and platforms in public life became more explicit in August, when the state-owned Security Times warned its readers that the Metaverse is a 'grand and illusionary concept' and 'blindly investing [in it] will ultimately come back to bite you.' Some commentators interpreted China's various warnings, prohibitions, and taxes as confirmation of the Metaverse's significance. For a communist and centrally planned country ruled by a single party, the potential of a parallel world for collaboration and communication is a threat, regardless of whether it's run by a single corporation or decentralized communities.
"Yet China was not alone in its worries. In October, members of the European Parliament began to voice concerns. One particularly important voice was that of Christel Schaldemose, who served as a chief negotiator for the European Union as it worked on its largest ever overhaul of digital-era regulations (most of which were intended to curb the power of so-called big tech giants such as Facebook, Amazon, and Google). In October, she told the Danish paper Politiken that 'plans for metaverse are deeply, deeply worrying' and that the union 'has to take them into account.'
"It's possible that the many Metaverse announcements, critiques, and warnings are just a real-world echo chamber about a virtual fantasy -- or more about driving new narratives, product launches, and marketing than anything life-changing. After all, the tech industry has a history of using buzzwords that are hyped for far longer than they ultimately end up lasting in the market, such as 3D televisions, or that prove to be further away than originally promised, such as VR headsets or virtual assistants. But it's rare that the world's largest companies publicly reorient themselves around such ideas at an early stage, thereby setting themselves up to be evaluated by employees, customers, and shareholders on the basis of their success in realizing their most ambitious visions."