There's a moment when you log back in to single player mode in Grand Theft Auto.
The camera pulls back. Your character (Franklin, say) is walking out of a store and is waving goodbye to someone off camera. Then the camera slowly moves into a new position, hovering just above and behind Franklin, locking itself into third-person "game position".
It's a powerful illusion: first, that the game world was persistent: you might have logged off, but life in Los Santos went on without you. And second, that your avatar also lives a life of its own when you're not around. Sometimes you log back in and he's coming out of a movie theatre or cruising women on the street or exiting a convenience store.
The camera snaps back into place and you now inhabit the game character. You've taken over the controls.
Persistence in Games and Virtual Worlds
The GTA moment was seminal because it helped to reinforce the idea of persistent worlds. It provided a hint that when we log out, the worlds will continue without us.
And persistence is one of the key definitions of the Metaverse (a term which has otherwise become a sort of collective emblem of a shift in technologies rather than a specific destination).
More recently, a game like Rust has carried persistence into a deep game mechanic: the assets you create will be destroyed or stolen by other players when you log off. And so players band together, share calendars and set up schedules to guard their forts around the clock. The fact that the whole world gets reset once a month just adds...I don't know, a sense of existential futility or something.
An upcoming game like Seed (which I've come to believe will help us imagine new paradigms for the Metaverse) will drive that persistence deep into layers related to economies, wellness, politics and culture.
And so world persistence is profound on its own. But if your concept of persistence is driven mostly by multi-player game platforms, then you're probably missing the deeper point: that persistence speaks to it being a world, which indicates something which isn't static, which changes and does more than deliver a series of grinds and quests according to a pre-determined schedule.
Sure, when you log into GTA or RDR there are already people online doing stuff, but the world itself hasn't particularly changed since the last time you logged in.
Minecraft is more world-like because its persistence is coded right down to the atom. Everything is subject to change. Everything can be re-shaped by other players. By the time you log in again, someone will have opened a portal or built a castle.
But what kind of 'world' is it when the people who inhabit it can stop time? Why is it that if the world is persistent, its citizens can simply log in or log off?
Should our avatars be static in worlds that will increasingly have the physics, economies and environments of the physical one (or imagined versions of the same)?
Avatars and Characters: What's The Difference
For me, the GTA moment was more profound for its hint that our avatars might have lives of their own.
But before we go there, we should take a brief moment to note the difference between an avatar and a game character. And maybe it's enough to say this:
- When a 'gamer' enters a virtual world, they often think of their avatar as their 'character'. They will talk about the avatar in the third person - "my character". They will talk about playing. There is a remove between the player and their representation.
- But at some point, you see a shift (at least in a fully realized virtual environment). Their 'character' becomes YOU. It is not some third party. You might be controlling that emblem of yourself. but you're not 'playing' it.
- There are neurological reasons for this. The brain has difficulty distinguishing between the physical and virtual manifestations of our 'selves'
- And so, when I talk about semi-autonomous avatars, I am not talking about game characters who are part of some story in which our sense of agency is limited.
Franklin in GTA is a character. You might identify with him, you might immerse in his life story, but he isn't YOU.
Set up a new 'toon for GTA Online, however, and you're getting a lot closer to being an avatar. The 'character' you use to play Fortnite is an avatar (especially when you spring for the skins) even if its life is mostly a series of grinds and the occasional Kaskade concert. And certainly when you log-in to Spatial.io your representation is clearly a version of you.
As we spend more and more of our time in synthetic worlds, these avatars, these extensions of ourselves, are US. Your avatar will have closets filled with clothes and NFT-backed sneakers, you will live in a $500,000 virtual house, and you'll head to a concert with 1.2 million other avatars (sharded, but still). Or...maybe not YOU (or ME), but someone will!
Semi-Autonomous Avatars and Why It Matters
There are ideas we have about the Metaverse. Some of them have become so firmly ingrained that we stop questioning the assumptions.
The idea of a semi-autonomous avatar challenges a few of those assumptions: