The metaverse is supposed to be the future, so it’s got the world buzzing with excitement. Hilariously, though, the prominence of the “futuristic” buzzword has caused old footage of digital worlds to explode on social media, largely driven by the fact that nobody really understands what the hell the metaverse actually is. And because the average person doesn’t know what the metaverse is, footage of shabby, lifeless digital universes that look worse than Roblox can pass off as unreleased cutting-edge tech.
In late January, for example, a reupload of a 2019 Facebook/Meta trailer went viral on Twitter, showcasing an awkward social virtual reality app called Horizon Worlds. Everyone thought it was a new announcement from Facebook, except it wasn’t. Somehow, this metaverse fakeout has happened more than once within the last year!
But going back to the viral ad: it tried to paint Horizon as this open and free place where folks could happily do anything and everything, while surrounded by friends all over the world. The happy-go-lucky vibe was out of The Good Place, the tweet noted, except of course, the TV show has a nefarious twist that makes the whole thing even weirder. The footage felt very artificial and ended up making a lot of people online kind of uncomfortable. Everyone depicted in the ad was a floating torso of endless smiles, sexless and toothless.
But was the actual experience as off-putting and sterile as the ad made it out to be? I decided to jump in and see for myself. First launched in closed beta last year, Horizon Worlds is a free social app that was made available to everyone last month. I spent a few hours hanging out with other people in its oddly bleak worlds, playing bad games and talking about random things. It was a strange experience, but one that I figure many might share as they take their first steps into the nightmare that is the online digital metaverse.
After making an avatar and getting walked through a short, but informative tutorial, I was dropped into Horizon’s main hangout hub. I got on at around 1 in the morning, so I wasn’t sure how many people would even be here. Plus, how many people really wanted to hangout in Facebook’s pseudo-matrix? The answer was: A lot of people. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, given how well the Oculus Quest fared this holiday season.
When I first arrived I saw a few groups of people hanging out in different parts of the area. I ran over to the closest group, which also contained a Facebook community guide. These are users who help coordinate events within the app and introduce new players to Horizon, while helping with tech issues too. The app uses proximity chat, so as I got closer I could overhear their conversation. It was odd.
“…so that was how he fell. It was hard. He broke a leg. And he was in a coma for a few weeks,” said one person.
“Oh my god,” was the community guide’s reaction to the story.
“Yeah, he woke up finally. It’s a miracle he’s even here playing with us,” the storyteller concluded his tale before, apparently, the subject of his story responded.
“I could have died,” then he started laughing.
I barged into their group and remained quiet until the guide waved to me and asked how I was doing. I explained that I was fine and also asked how the person fell, as I had missed that part. But before I could hear the story, two more people ran in and the conversation changed as folks introduced themselves and joked about their floating avatars not having legs.
I spent time running around to the various pockets of people in this hub. One person asked me if I knew how to build anything using the game’s creation tools. I explained that I just started playing and thanks to the power of VR, I watched them physically react with sadness. It seemed nobody could help them build their palace.
Another group had people talking about ghosts. Apparently, a player had logged in earlier and left after saying they heard a ghost. Since then, the group had continued to share ghost stories. At one point a kid, I assume, ran up to us and did the “Sheeeesshhh” meme and then ran back towards a large tree that can be climbed using teleport controls. After a moment of silence and giggling the group went back to ghost tales.
After some folks left, I headed back to the community guide. She was very nice and had just helped someone fix an issue with their headset’s audio. I asked a few general questions, like why the hangout area was still adorned in Christmas decorations in January. She laughed.
“People keep… people keep asking me about that and I don’t know!” She seemed a bit frustrated by it, so I apologized and asked if she was being paid by Facebook or Meta for her services. At that point, she seemed a bit hesitant to keep talking to me and when I asked about how long she usually hangs out in sessions, welcoming players and helping them with tech issues, she explained she loves the community and began moving around to different groups of people. It felt weird to chase after her so I didn’t.
But it seems clear that Facebook has community guides watching over players Horizon Worlds, which might explain why the general vibe was mostly chill. I only heard a few players swear or make nasty jokes and nobody said any slurs. Even as numerous players came and went, the overall vibe felt less toxic than I expected, considering how awful Facebook is. Maybe actually having to speak and be around people is enough to keep most assholes in check? Or perhaps the ever-watchful eye of community guides is the key?
At one point, a player who I had been talking to on and off over the hour I spent in the hub asked me to come play a zombie game with him and a friend. I joined him via a simple hand gesture and we played what might be one of the worst zombie shooters I’ve ever seen. It featured enemies that were barely animated and looked ripped out of a bad Roblox game. The guns also felt terrible, with no feedback when shooting stuff. Apparently, this is a popular community creation. But still, no offense to the person who created it, but it wasn’t great. Still, the fact that it was completely free, easy to play, and didn’t include too much gore or violence probably explained why so many younger people were playing it when I joined. Though after less than ten minutes I bailed because, well, I just have better things to do than play a bad zombie game with 14-year-olds. Not much better, but still.
Before I left, I started asking folks why they were here. Some admitted that they didn’t have any games to play, so this was a free option to check out. Others had met some folks here that they liked and used this as a way to hang out and chill with them during the ongoing pandemic. When I mentioned VRchat, another VR social app with higher-quality graphics, legs, and a recognition that sex is real, some seemed to be unaware it existed. Others had tried it out or looked it up online and were not into how “wild” it seemed, which is funny when you consider that many decry Facebook’s equivalent for being too tame.
The most surprising answer was some folks liked Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger so much that it just made sense to them to use Horizon Worlds too. This was just where their friends hung out and so did they. I’m surrounded by folks who hate Facebook, the company, and all the shit it has done, so it was odd to encounter folks who still used Meta’s various apps every day. A reminder of just how big the world is beyond your Twitter group and Slack colleagues, I guess.
By the end of my time with Horizon Worlds, I had come around on it somewhat. I still think Facebook (or Meta or whatever new name they switch to next to avoid bad press) is the worst company I could imagine owning and controlling popular VR tech and software, much less the future of all tech that might be overlaid on the entirety of the world. Horizon isn’t quite as awful as the ad makes it seem, but it is still a hollow, corporate shell that has more in common with an office than it does a playground, or any other type of social space a human being would willingly want to hang out in. It’s definitely no VRchat or Rec Room. And for some, that empty vibe won’t matter: based on what I saw during my time in Horizon, a lot of people seem plenty excited to hang out in Mark Zuckerberg’s subpar take on The Matrix.