In unReal Life

Yesterday I created an avatar, not my first, a current representation of present and future self. Actually, I created three. Used Ready Player because someone who knows what they’re talking about suggested I do.

“The rest of the team used it to create theirs,” my colleague says, so I do too.

Soon, we’ll all have avatars, and if you talk to anyone under the age of thirty, they’ll just laugh incredulously and say, “duh!?!”

Creating an avatar can get dizzying fast, depending on how many options you face in the dark spiral of choices that’s just a precursor to the hours people lose exploring the other worlds being built all around us. Some suggest you should enlist help when creating an avatar, someone with less invested in exactly what the square of your chin looks like.

“That’s not me,” you likely think when the program kicks out a draft from the selfie you submit.

“Yes it is,” your personal consultant will insist. This happened to me when the algorithm spit out a shock white haired metaverse persona.

“Whoa!” I scream, more like moan. “My hair should be black.”

“Not it shouldn’t,” the voice says back to my present self. “It’s gray, and has been for years.”

After the initial panic wears off, I start to channel my inner Andy Wharhol. “I can work with this,” I think, and move on to choosing outfits.

Why am I taking precious time out of my day to create these characters? Because on this night, I will teach a class of graduate students at BC’s Carroll School of Management, and I’ve decided to make this session about the metaverse, something I suspect many of them will know more about than I do. Tonight, I’m taking a risk. Teaching something I’ve begun to understand due to our agency’s commitment to innovation. The metaverse, something my kids Ben and Nicole know as well as we did the streets of our childhoods.

“Go out and play,” our parents begged in a futile plea foreign today — our kids locked in their rooms, chained to their devices, all the while training for future worlds not yet invented.

This my seventh year teaching this marketing class, the last two via Zoom, so it’s good to be back in person. And despite being back live at Fulton Hall, this session will be dedicated to discussing the virtual worlds of ROBLOX, Fortnite and Minecraft.

“I want to attend a J Balvin concert on Party Royale,” I say, citing a recent event for two hundred thousand fans. “How many of you know Party Royale?” I ask.

No hands go up at first, and suddenly I feel cool. Maybe I still got it, maybe my early foray into the metaverse lends me a temporary faux leg -up, or more like an avatar up. We’ve been talking about the metaverse at the agency where I work, suggesting ways our clients might dip their toes into the vast oceans being developed — warm waters welcoming millions of gamers to swim in them — only a matter of time before we’re all a part of some commercial or entertainment aspect.

Each year, I start this class the same way, with a game I call Popcorn, a game of first impressions. Before launching into any real content, I stand in front of the class and ask students to blurt out one word first impressions of my personal brand. They too are working to develop their personal brands as part of a final project, so this all makes sense to some degree.

“Brains and brawn,” one student says.

“Thank you,” I answer. “You’re hired.”

“Science-fiction,” offers another.

“OK, I can work with that,” my response.

“Unrealistic,” comes from the back of the room, and we all laugh.

In the metaverse, you can be anyone — a dreamer, adventurer, philosopher, wanderer. Some people love this phenomenon, while others wonder why we need to hide inside make-believe characters in unreal universes. Neil Stephenson first wrote about the metaverse in his 1992 book Snow Crash, and since then various entrepreneurs have been at it. The founder of Roblox isn’t a kid, he’s fifty-nine and been building his platform for over a decade. Activision aspires to create a game that fifty or a hundred thousand people will play simultaneously. Far cry from the thirty to fifty that currently engage at a time.

Soon, my class dives in and we’re brainstorming ideas for the future present today, like creating digital participants to a real-life fashion shows, or ideas for how SUBWAY can allow consumers to make sandwiches in the metaverse. Soon, maybe one of these students will present their own personal brand as avatar.

“Some treat this exercise very professionally, like building a resume,” the professor explains when I explore the possibility that some might create an avatar as representation. “Others get creative, create illustrations.”

Teaching brings me joy, and in a parallel universe, I’d follow my passion to create a career in a classroom. Maybe there’s time… and this place.

“What if time isn’t linear?” I muse from the front of the room, my energy slightly too animated. “What if we can experience forty-eight hours in twenty-four, which would give us plenty of time for these alternate realities?” Just think about the vast amounts of time people already spend in virtual worlds. “A piece in The New York Times says there are about 1x10x10x10x10… universes exist out there already. Why not one more?”

OK, now they are looking at me like I’m from another planet, even if I did arrive on a bike — different breed for an alternate reality that harkens to change how we live our very lives. Three personas, three ways to be, the last eerily like me. I’ve been fiddling with Ready Player for fifteen minutes or so when I come across this third version of my future self — slightly disheveled, pants belted too low, shirt unbuttoned, tie tied too loose, all in all the least interesting when one can reinvent oneself at the drop of an ap. And yet, that looks just like me. Ugh! Hate it. Preferring to live in the unrealism the metaverse offers, at least for tonight.

There’s a certain freedom associated with starting again, though many will ask why? Still, my goal for this class less to have all the answers than to ask some of the questions, the what ifs. I create these avatars as much to learn about what it feels like to live alternatively, as I do to teach what little I know about what’s already very real. To be honest, this all makes me a little uneasy, like radio and TV must have my parents and grandparents before me.

“Isn’t real life enough?” they might ask.

Mary and I loved the new movie Everywhere, Everything, All the Time. A multiverse romp set in a real world laundromat. We may not be quite ready, but here we go.

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Steve Mooney

Steve Mooney

Writer, photographer, wannabe musician.