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Community — central to the success of games, whether they’re online, console, or mobile — is going to be a major factor in how well the metaverse coheres. Megan Fitzgerald, head of experience and product marketing at Facebook Reality Labs, Jessica Freeman, head of marketing at Minecraft, and Lauren Bigelow, chief of product at Together Labs, the parent company for IMVU, came together to talk about what’s needed to foster meaningful connection in the metaverse. Their conversation, “Making Friends in the Metaverse,” moderated by friendship expert Shasta Nelson, was part of the GamesBeat event, Into the Metaverse.
VR is a major step toward the metaverse, taking the relationships we’re forming in digital environments in 2D and bringing them to fully immersive 3D environments and shared experiences, Fitzgerald said. At Facebook Reality Labs, her role is to support the content and experiences that they’re building in-house or bringing onto the Oculus VR platform.
“What we’re seeing and what we’ve heard from people experiencing this today is when you have people forming meaningful relationships, they spend more time with those people, they spend more of their energy, they spend more dollars,” Fitzgerald said. “And when you have people spending time and energy with each other, an opportunity to surprise and delight people is to give them more value in this experience and that’s why it’s so important we, as industry leaders, are thinking about serving that need as the metaverse grows.”
Freeman pointed to the way the pandemic has impacted every part of our lives, including the way we maintain connections with others — which may feel more important than ever. Since physical connections aren’t possible, we’re looking for ways to engage digitally.
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“What we’ve seen with Minecraft, is that we had record engagement this year,” she said. “We’ve seen that over 130 million players a month are coming to our platform. But what’s most interesting is that we’ve seen a 90% increase in multiplayer. People are trying to find those opportunities to connect with their friends, with their families, during this time of social isolation. So I think that this conversation has never been more relevant.”
“There’s lots of negative feedback about some of the aspects of socializing online, and I think that there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle,” said Bigelow. “Whether we have a pandemic or not, this is going to happen. And we’re just in its infancy. So I feel like we have a responsibility to architect healthy spaces to connect online.”
For the metaverse to work, it has to play better than the real world, for users to want to go into it. When architecting a platform, you can use a top-down approach where you institute rules, where violators will be reported and experience consequences, Bigelow said. But another way is to identify the positive loops that naturally occur in an online community and reinforce them.
At Together Labs’ platform, IMVU, “We’re really focusing on what kind of activities can help break the ice and help you bond,” explained Bigelo “That’s everything from watching movies or drawing together, doing simple activities, to actually moving into a virtual world like a story room.”
IMVU also has a growing community of volunteer greeters, who help new users connect with other players, and party hosts are active in user rooms. She refers to these as virtuous circles, and another one consists of creators who develop visual assets for the platform, mentor other creators, and gain a lot of attention for their creations.
At Facebook, they’ve been mindful of building an ecosystem and a community that’s safe from the beginning, Fitzgerald said.
“In addition to reinforcing the positive loops, we did a lot of work to put in place the tools that give people the opportunity to act in their best nature,” she said. “As we’re moving into a 3D environment, [that involves] giving people the tools to actually control what is around them physically. That’s something we don’t have in the real world and you know, sometimes I’ve been in a busy bar and kind of want it!”
With world-building tools, like those in Minecraft and Facebook Horizon, and avatar creation in IMVU, users are gaining a 3D place to explore their creativity, not limited by the laws of physics or by matter, and a way to express themselves and reveal aspects of their identity in ways they might not have had the space or tools to do before. It creates a sense of vulnerability that is deeply important in creating connections and communities.
Nelson spoke about the three elements necessary for healthy relationships: positivity (experiencing positive interactions at a rate of at least five positive for any negative one); consistency (building this over time); and vulnerability, or the experience of being really seen and heard for who your are.
“We can enjoy each other with positivity and do it frequently with consistency,” she explained, “but if we lack vulnerability we’re not ever going to feel like they see us, they get us, they know us. This is where we share our ideas and our opinions and who we are, where we feel like we can express ourselves.”
On a platform like Minecraft, creativity can be a direct expression of vulnerability.
“You are creating something that is reflective of your ideas,” said Freeman. “Then making that available to others to react to is being vulnerable. We want to be able to create multiple ways for people to share, and by virtue of sharing, really expressing their true selves.”
“Vulnerability is something that grows organically and there are layers to it as people find one-to-one relationships,” Fitzgerald added. “I think something interesting to think about is how do we use game loops and mechanisms that reward vulnerability in an interesting way.”
Some of that is standard across the digital ecosystem, whether that’s likes or follows that offer users validation for expressing themselves.
“But I think that the decision that we make around how we allow people to validate others’ vulnerability, also helps make sure that people feel supported and safe and like they’re ready to take that next step,” said Fitzgerald. “Or maybe even the first step in opening themselves up to other people in the ecosystem, and then form that network that provides the mutual benefit for the broader community and the full game.”
“One of the things that we can all think about is how, in our game experiences, are we making everyone feel welcome,” Freeman added. “So, it’s as much about positivity as it is about inclusion and making sure that there are as few barriers as possible for people to express themselves, and be seen, be heard and be supported.”
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