Five perspectives on the nature and form of the Metaverse

Dirk Songuer
13 min readFeb 23, 2023


This article is a kind-of, sort-of follow-up to “Four perspectives on NFTs”.

Consider the following question:

What is the Metaverse?

The best answer right now is something like: “The Metaverse is a contested future vision, claimed by different stakeholders, each with very different perspectives, assumptions and goals.

But this definition is frustrating as it describes a situation, not the vision itself. And it leads to other questions: Whose vision? Which assumptions? What goals?

In my series “Fieldnotes from the Metaverse” I am approaching an answer by looking at the history of the Metaverse. With this article, I want to synthesize five major narratives, each created at different points in time for different purposes:

  • Purists (late 1980s, early 1990s) basing the Metaverse on the first science fiction novels describing such visions
  • Immersionists (late 1990s and 2000s) looking at immersion and presence that Metaverse technologies enable
  • Virtualitarians (2000s) proposing that the Metaverse is tightly coupled with reality
  • Gamers (2000s and 2010s) creating large scale massive virtual multi-player worlds with millions of inhabitants as a proto-Metaverse
  • Cryptonians (since 2020s) incorporating the Metaverse into the Blockchain narrative

All these perspectives are still used today, adding to the confusion. Let’s look at their core premises, and where they might overlap.


Neal Stephenson coined the term “Metaverse” in his 1992 book Snow Crash. It described a violent, capitalistic, and cynical dystopic world, aligning to the “No Future” cultural Zeitgeist of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It took the financial (early eighties recessions), environmental (for example the Exxon Valdez disaster), and nuclear (Chernobyl) disasters of the 1980s and 1990s and (together with the microcomputer revolution) extrapolated a hyper capitalistic, post-apocalyptic, fully digitally transformed future vision.

In this setting, the Metaverse was described as a massively multiplayer game-like successor to the Internet, populated by user-controlled Avatars, as well as system-controlled Daemons.

Snow Crash, together with other works like William Gibsons Johnny Mnemonic (1981), Burning Chrome (1982) and Neuromancer (1982) as well as Ridley Scotts Blade Runner (1982), created a template for how this approaching digitized world might feel. They were a stark contrast to previous clean and sterile future visions, and their worlds felt alive, used, lived in and thus more relatable and realistic to the audience.

They provided a stylistic template for the emerging computer enthusiast subculture of the 1990s. Cyber Samurai, Netrunners and Avatars became role models and lifestyles to identify with. Instead of imitating rock stars or athletes, computer enthusiasts imitated Rache Bartmoss or Johnny Silverhand.

Metaverse purists still subscribe to the style and properties outlined in Snow Crash and its modern iterations like The Matrix or Ready Player One. As a vision, it’s more about style than substance. It outlines a shape, not the body of a Metaverse vision. And as such, the properties of this Metaverse are mostly grounded in what makes a good story, not what is actually practical.

DALL-E: “The Metaverse, as described in Snow Crash, a digital space where people meet, as a science fiction magazine cover from the 1970s”

Core Metaverse properties for purists:

  • The Metaverse as society scale digital entertainment and escapism
  • Virtual reality-based, or using otherwise fully immersive technologies like brain-interfaces
  • One fully interconnected and interoperable Metaverse
  • Single identity and representation
  • Uses real-world analogies in virtual worlds, like “avatars walking through endless digital cities” or “travelling on information superhighways

Drivers: The fact that this has been a prominent narrative in books, movies and other pop culture media for decades means that people are familiar with the narrative. The visions and stories are a digital equivalent of a magic fairy land, with VR goggles as the entrance to Narnia. “Underdog escapes dystopian reality and succeeds in magical fairy land” makes good and sticky entertainment.

Blockers: The Metaverse as society-scale escapism only makes sense if people want to escape the real world at scale. While many purists ignore the dystopian aspects of the narrative, the concept only works within a dystopian society, as otherwise there would be no reason to escape reality in the first place.

Also, in this dystopian scenario the Metaverse is only “interconnected and interoperable” because it is a centralized platform, operated by one entity (for example Oasis by Gregarious Simulation Systems in Ready Player One), which also only necessitates one user identity. Again, some purists argue that this can be achieved with decentralized approaches, however the narrative always centralizes again.

Summary: Purists believe in a single, all-encompassing Metaverse that a dystopic society uses for digital entertainment and escapism.


Augmented and virtual reality technologies represent a meaningful improvement in immersion — users feel more present in such simulated or augmented environments than experiencing digital dimensions purely through 2D screens.

Indeed, the terms “virtual immersion and precence” have been coined alongside the development of video games and virtual reality technologies in the 1990s and 2000s. Immersion is a more technical perspective and focusses more on the process of getting into a virtual world. Presence, on the other hand, is a psychological state or a personal perception of “being present in a virtual (augmented) environment” and varies with the user and time.

As a result, immersionists believe that the Metaverse represents a qualitative difference from other ways to experience digital dimensions. While the Web and mobile apps are about “remote controlling” digital dimensions, the Metaverse will enable “entering” and perceiving them in a natural way.

For immersionists, the goal is to create highly immersive experiences for any purpose (entertainment, education, work, games, concerts, events, etc.) as isolated or shared spaces, connecting people in more accessible, relevant, and valuable ways. Their definition of the Metaverse is more a subjective, psychological state: “You know when you are in it”.

DALL-E: “The Metaverse, as an environment to meet people and have shared experiences, as a science fiction magazine cover from the 1970s”

Core Metaverse properties for immersionists:

  • The Metaverse as a highly immersive digital space, with similar or equal feeling of presence as in the real world
  • Utilizes any device on the Mixed Reality spectrum, including virtual and augmented reality
  • Many digital dimensions hosting single or multi-user experiences, connected through efficient and immersive ways to switch between them
  • Self-embodiment as identity representation
  • Makes purely digital or digital-physical experiences perceivable as real-world experiences

Drivers: The COVID pandemic accelerated all technologies around remote work, meetings & telepresence. Where before remote meetings were seen as a necessary nuisance, they became the main form of communication in several industries. With that came the desire for more immersive ways to communicate & collaborate, driving hardware innovation.

Similarly, augmented and virtual reality headsets are now readily available for early adopters and specific professional use cases, driving further innovation in the software & solution space.

Blockers: Full embodiment and remote controlling virtual representations is still hard. While hand tracking is maturing, full body representation is still a challenge. Especially mapping a digital avatar that is freely moving through virtuality to a stationary user in VR gear. The result does not feel natural yet, impairing the feeling of presence.

Also, while there are huge advancements in augmented and virtual reality headsets, they are still too cumbersome to use over longer periods of time.

Summary: Augmented and virtual reality as highly immersive technologies will allow users to step into digital dimensions, at which point their perception will change from “using the Internet” to “being in the Metaverse”.


As computers get ever more ubiquitous, they tend to disappear. In 2017 Walt Mossberg wrote his seminal column for The Verge, outlining his vision for the disappearing computer:

“I expect that one end result of all this work will be that the technology, the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought.” — Walt Mosberg

The assumption is that the Internet of Things, Computational Graphs and Cognitive Services will converge and imbue all things and environments with digital components and digital capabilities, integrated to the point where we don’t recognize them as computers anymore.

Within this perspective, interfaces to the Metaverse will be incorporated into (almost) all things and environments. Today every car, washing machine, fridge, elevator — effectively everything with a power socket or batteries is a computer. Which also means it is collecting data and has digital capabilities.

This leads to a connected digital-physical world, where the infrastructure as well as the inhabitants (people, environments, and things) are connected and have Digital Twins in virtuality — creating digital dimensions or mirror worlds on top of reality.

For virtualitarians, this is the Metaverse: A threshold where virtual dimensions (or rather the digital representation of real things in virtuality) matter so much to the physical world that they become part of it. Reality itself is part of virtuality — and vice versa virtuality is part of reality, at which point the Metaverse emerges.

Users will transform any physical space into digital spaces without hard boundaries. They will be able to reach out and manipulate digital dimensions, which will have real-world implications, and be able to manipulate the physical world to change the digital dimensions. Any action and value will be the same in digital dimensions as in physical reality. The Metaverse is the real world and vice versa.

That makes the Metaverse effectively an MMO (or a spatial social platform if you prefer that term) that overlays the real world at scale 1:1:n, where “n” is the amount of mirror worlds existing.

CALL-E: “The Metaverse as a part of our daily life, depicting a normal scene on a real street and in the Metaverse, as a science fiction magazine cover from the 1970s”

Core Metaverse properties for virtualitarians:

  • The Metaverse as means to create shared experiences across both the physical and digital worlds, either through augmented physical experiences, or through purely digital ones
  • Multi-modal, not limited to any type of device, including Mixed Reality, wearables, mobile phones, tablets, PCs, as well as stationary sensors & Edge computing
  • Many persistent, digital dimensions, connected to many aspects of the physical world, including people, places, and things, held together by contextualization
  • Complex identity representation, based on the ability to adapt and explore every aspect of one's identity
  • Anchors digital experiences in the real-world, enhancing real experiences with digital capabilities

Drivers: The assumption is that virtual worlds and ambient computing will converge, creating experiential layers in a world where “Everything that can be digital will be”, with Mixed Reality offering an immersive way to experience this digital-physical world. As a result, any innovation and improvement in either of these trends will further drive reality into virtuality.

Blockers: Since this is a very abstract view of the Metaverse, many claim that this is not a valid definition of the Metaverse at all. They argue it looks and feels more like a natural extension of the Internet, a “spatial form of the Web”, but not the Metaverse.


Multi-User Dungeon, better known as MUD, Essex MUD or MUD1, was developed by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle in 1978 as a test to see if and how a truly shared virtual game-world could be created and maintained.

The final architecture of MUD was split in two: The game engine providing the core functionality, and a language to describe the game world and mechanics called MUDDL (MUD Definition Language). This allowed others to take the game engine and create their own virtual worlds on top of it, spawning many more worlds, based on diverse settings and topics, many of them offering some form of interoperability between them.

MUD and its successors are text-based experiences. They are easily dismissed as some form of computing relics from days long past. However, in many ways they represent a low-resolution, high immersion window into the proto-Metaverse.

They were also the template for extending the formula. As games like Meridian 59, EverQuest, Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot added graphical user interfaces on top of MUD systems in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Richard Garriott coined the term “Massively multiplayer online role-playing games”, or MMORPGs, which was used going forward.

Second Life was one of the first virtual worlds that got widespread attention outside the gaming community. Developed in 2003 by Linden Lab, Second Life was not really a game per se, but a virtual world focused on socializing and personal exploration. If MUDs established the spectrum from “Theme Parks” to “Sandboxes”, Second Life was pushing the boundaries of what a social sandbox could be.

In 2013, Linden Lab published an infographic for their 10th anniversary, stating that Second Life had 36 million total user accounts, 1 million monthly active users and 2.1 million user-created goods for sale (including many real-world brands), with 1.2 million daily transactions of virtual goods.

In the late 2010s many more social virtual worlds came online, with millions of inhabitants and strong virtual economies. Some bridged the concept of social worlds and games. Roblox for example allows players to create their own games and experiences using Roblox Studio, which can then be played by other users. This also includes tradable game assets like characters, skins, gear, and objects.

Gamers argue that these virtual worlds are more than simple massive multiplayer systems. Game designers realized that by bringing our own selves into virtual worlds, we brought parts of us — and thus the real. Our characters in MUDs, MMORPGs as well as other digital representations like our Facebook, LinkedIn or even work profiles, are the same as the various aspects of our personality that we develop and present in different real-life social circles. The building up of identity is valuable and losing it is painful. This is remarkably similar to what immersionists call “presence”, However applied to the concept of identity.

The early inhabitants might have sought escapism, but they took their reality with them. Real value and real money followed. And this is where the proto-Metaverse emerged for them.

DALL-E: “The Metaverse as a meeting place in a fantasy game setting, as a science fiction magazine cover from the 1970s”

Core Metaverse properties for gamers:

  • The Metaverse as highly immersive virtual worlds, each with their own rules, laws of physics and dynamics
  • Multi-modal, with any type of device being a way to enter the virtual worlds, including Mixed Reality, mobile phones, tablets, and PCs
  • Many massive virtual worlds, loosely connected through meta-services
  • The celebration of identity is the fundamental core point of virtual worlds — a means of self-discovery- with any action as means of developing their own identity
  • Highly entertaining and engaging digital experiences with real-world tie-ins

Drivers: The video game industry has been extraordinarily successful for decades, with the global games and services market earning around $190 billion in 2022. This makes it bigger than the global film industry (including box office and home entertainment revenue), even before COVID.

Video games are also a cultural driver, with eSports-teams and social media gaming influencers & streamers being stylistic and professional role models for a younger generation.

Blockers: The question is if games can be considered something sufficiently new as a concept to be called “Metaverse”. And if so, what properties are required of a game to be a Metaverse experience? These questions are still discussed, even within the gaming community. Games may be part of theMetaverse or might be a proto-Metaverse themselves.

Summary: Highly engaging and immersive shared virtual worlds, each with their own rules, laws of physics and dynamics, as a celebration and exploration of identity.


The recent hype around cryptocurrencies spawned the latest perspective on what the Metaverse is. However, this trend is driven by two groups.

On one hand, investors require a constant stream of fresh money pouring into the ecosystem due to the ponzi-like nature of cryptocurrencies. As funds dried up, they looked around and thought the Metaverse would make a good narrative to attach their crypto investment narrative to, lending legitimacy to their crypto-casino and bringing in new funds. Let’s call those “Profit Maxis”.

I could write a lot about proft maxis, but for this article I am going to ignore their negative externalities. I also see another group within the crypto community that does believe in a genuinely new perspective for the Metaverse. Let’s call them “Metaverse Maxis”.

For Metaverse maxis, the Metaverse is a utopian future vision where people are more equal (every digital avatar has equal rights and access to digital infrastructure) and there are less boundaries to information and technology (a decentralized network without gatekeepers and thus free).

This group views NFTs as digital representations of objects in virtual dimensions, and thus the building blocks of a Metaverse. The Bored Ape Yacht Club is an actual place for them to hang out with friends, talk, listen to music, and have a fun time. They believe in the community, not individual objects. And the place they describe, for them, is the Metaverse — as a commodity, not an investment.

Much like Metaverse purists, the vision is more about an idealized change in society than substantive requirements: Less centralization, more equal and enabled access for everybody. It only outlines a rough understanding of what properties of a Metaverse might be, but it does not outline any details beyond “Blockchains” as technological solutionism.

DALL-E: “The Metaverse as a libertarian economy, with money, tokens, and assets, as a science fiction magazine cover from the 1970s”

Core Metaverse properties for cryptonians:

  • The Metaverse as the sum of tokenized assets, brought to life through digital and real experiences
  • Multi-modal, not limited to any type of interface device
  • Many persistent, digital experiences, held together by Blockchain technology
  • No concept of identity representation, based on pseudonymous or anonymous abstractions from physical identities
  • Anchors digital experiences in the real-world, enhancing real experiences with digital capabilities

Drivers: The biggest drivers are not the Metaverse maxis, but the profit maxis, needing to evangelize the value of (incidentally the same) technologies to effectively find greater fools in a yet unregulated cooling market to keep their ponzi-casino alive. Metaverse maxis have little to argue themselves without consensus about what the Metaverse is and what their goals are.

Blockers: Incidentally, the driver is also the blocker: By being associated with the profit maxis, the positive narrative of the crypto-Metaverse is dragged down by the negative externalities of grifters and fraud.

Summary: The Metaverse as the result of a tokenized & decentralized digital assets, representing digital and real things, with access for everybody.


It is important to understand that all these perspectives have their place. They were developed at different points in time, at distinct stages of technical availability and maturity. They all provide valuable insights into various aspects of what might eventually become the actual Metaverse. They also put emphasis on distinct parts of the overall experience and on different desires.

I see these perspectives as an opportunity to learn from different fields: Different visions, desires and needs that come together and find consensus to build something numinous together. This starts by recognizing and respecting that “your” definition of the Metaverse is not the only one true one and as a community we should have an open and inviting culture, not one of gatekeeping. 🙌



Dirk Songuer

Living in Berlin / Germany, loving technology, society, good food, well designed games and this world in general. Views are mine, k?