Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been thinking about metaverses for a long time. He was already fantasizing about them in middle school, years before Facebook would transform the way people use the internet to socialize. But now, decades later, he has the resources, and the technology, to make his metaverse vision a reality.

Following an interview with the Verge in which he said Facebook is exploring metaverses, the tech industry has been buzzing about the concept and speculating as to whether, or how, blockchain can be incorporated.

Examples of metaverses in popular culture often center on entertainment, such as the book-turned-film franchise “Ready Player One” about a teen’s adventures in a sprawling, immersive gaming environment. Earlier iterations have focused on entertainment as well, such as the digital game Second Life, which allows players to operate a virtual version of themselves and interact with other people in a make-believe world online.

But Zuckerberg is now talking about taking the concept beyond simple entertainment

One word he repeated in the interview is “space.” As people spend an increasing amount of time in the digital realm, they are still limited in their online interactions through two-dimensional portals called screens. “We’re basically mediating our lives and our communication through these small, glowing rectangles,” he told the Verge. “I think that’s not really how people are made to interact.”

Zuckerberg and many others argue metaverses are the next step in reducing the friction between people, communities and technology.

When the metaverse meets the blockchain

No strict definition for metaverse exists, yet; the term comprises a broad range of concepts to describe a virtual, interactive world. “You can think about the metaverse as embodying the internet, where instead of just viewing content, you’re in it,” says Corey Cottrell, founder of the Uplift, a metaverse built upon the engine of popular multiplayer game Minecraft and leveraging blockchain for certain functions.

The Uplift works very similarly to the game it is based on (one could argue Minecraft is a metaverse in its own right as well), as players mine resources in order to build structures and landmarks simply for the joy of building and sharing them with communities. Similar to other plugins for Minecraft, such as EnjinCraft, the Uplift enables players to own plots of land through non-fungible tokens, and then earn rewards through the game’s native token, Upliftium. They earn this token by having people visit the plots of land they own or by spending time in other people’s plots.

“The riot of creativity is mental,” said Cottrell, referring to the projects the community has built. “There are sky rises and … there’s castles, it’s like people are going crazy [with the level of creativity]. It’s exactly what Mark Zuckerberg said; we’re just actually already building it instead of talking about it.”

By incorporating blockchain and NFTs, the Uplift is not only already doing it but expanding upon the concept of a metaverse through incorporating a play-to-earn function. Despite only being open for just over four months, the project has already sold US$2.5 million of NFTs to be used within the game.

The Uplift’s success mirrors the rising popularity of other blockchain-based, play-to-earn games, including Axie Infinity, which saw an 800% rise in the value of its governance token recently. This meant many communities of players in countries such as the Philippines, where the game was incredibly popular, were able to quit their jobs and survive simply from playing the video game full time.

In a similar way to the Basic Attention Token, which pays users of the web browser Brave for watching advertising on their system, these new play-to-earn models are redefining users’ roles within systems. Facilitated by blockchain technology, they recognize the value users bring to the system with their participation and their attention.

This stands at odds with traditional methods of funding of both traditional and social media, which is driven by selling advertising space to the end-users. “I’ve always felt really strongly about that,” Cottrell said. “Because when Zuckerberg gets into this, that’s not what he’s going to be thinking. That’s one probably major difference. He’s not going to pay you to post on Facebook because for them that doesn’t scale. I mean, it could, but he still won’t do it.”

The metaverse is already here

Depending on how one defines a metaverse, some would argue humans are already living in one. Yat Siu, founder and board member of Animoca Brands, which was a lead investor in the development team behind Axie Infinity, says in some respects the virtual world is beginning to have more of an impact on human decision making than the physical world.

“We care more about how we are viewed or portrayed virtually than we care about how we’re portrayed physically in many cases,” Siu said. “And if that’s the case, then actually the metaverse is already here. It’s just not quite here the way we expected.”

Not that long ago, the concept of online dating had a certain level of stigma about it, but now it is very common for people to form lasting relationships that began online. Similarly, many people’s professional persona and personal social media presence are highly curated. This is particularly true of the younger generation, who are often the first to adapt to new technologies.

Animoca has a suite of metaverse-type, blockchain-based games it has invested in, including Axie Infinity. Unsurprisingly as an investor in play-to-earn games, Siu is skeptical of the traditional, centralized funding model epitomized by companies such as Facebook, and the extractive nature of their business model.

“Facebook very much understands that they are already a kind of metaverse, except the way I view it is they are the metaverse kingdom, in the sense that they are the kings and their users are all digital serfs,” Siu said. “They don’t actually own anything that they do in Facebook. And for the time being, they can get away with it. But I don’t think this will work long term.”

A metaverse would not be the first blockchain application by Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform. Its ill-fated cryptocurrency, Diem — formerly called Libra — was designed as a payment system for Facebook users to use on the platform but has repeatedly run into headwinds with governments and delays in development. Siu says this is at least in part due to the fact Facebook is such a large company that is very much in the public eye, so its attempts to branch out into new areas are often met with public and regulatory scrutiny.

Zuckerberg has acknowledged the need for publicly funded metaverses to run in parallel to the for-profit ones, to provide a digital version of a town-square — a concept social media companies often liken themselves to. “That’s important for having healthy communities and a healthy sphere. And those spaces range from things that are government-built or administered, to nonprofits, which I guess are technically private, but are operating in the public interest without a profit goal,” he told the Verge.

Aware of the potential negative impact of spending too much time in the metaverses could have on people’s mental health, Cottrell says the team is considering scheduling a specific time for the Uplift to be shut off. This will enforce taking breaks in the gameplay to ensure people don’t spend all their time in the system. As addictive as apps on phones and regular video games are, with greater immersion and depth of functionality, the risks are even more so for metaverses. 

While the small team behind the Uplift has the ability to consider doing that, Cottrell says he is concerned that larger companies might not act in the best interests of their users. “As large corporations with much more investor pressure [move into the space ] there’s going to be these pressures to design things as addictive as phones, for example,” Cottrell said. “It’s already a super addictive experience being in video games for [us] hyper-intelligent monkeys.”

Despite these concerns, Cottrell remains very excited about what the future holds for the Uplift and other metaverses.

“The next time we have this chat, let’s do it inside the Uplift,” he said to a reporter. “It’s much different when you’re in there.”