Why It Can Feel Good to Be Bad in the Metaverse

Virtual reality is fun. It’s a release. But when does it become a little too real? This article is part of CoinDesk's "Sin Week."

AccessTimeIconAug 29, 2022 at 1:04 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 19, 2023 at 4:03 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconAug 29, 2022 at 1:04 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 19, 2023 at 4:03 p.m. UTCLayer 2
AccessTimeIconAug 29, 2022 at 1:04 p.m. UTCUpdated Sep 19, 2023 at 4:03 p.m. UTCLayer 2

Every kingdom has its would-be usurpers, but most people are just trying to play by the rules and commit as few acts of evil as possible. That said, every identity contains multiple personas, our moral compasses are not carved in stone and after trying so hard to be good IRL it can be fun to be bad for a bit in your favorite internet cesspool.

After all, the internet has long served as a liberating outlet for people to do what they want and be who they want. Early internet chat rooms were bastions of individual expression (and chaos). With the rise of immersive gaming and metaversal experiences, people now have even more ways to explore every aspect of their personality and interests, including their dark side.

Steven Na is the executive producer of Human Park. a consumer-first metaverse entertainment company. This article is part of CoinDesk's "Sin Week."

Of course, aberrant behavior is not relegated to the metaverse. The regular internet is awash in a sea of sexual harassment, hate speech and illegal content, and people can be disturbingly creative when it comes to leveraging technology to abuse one another.

This is especially alarming in the metaverse, given some people report feeling phantom sensations when their metaversal selves are accosted. It’s no surprise then, that bodily harassment directed towards online avatars often feels more traumatic than verbal harassment on traditional social media platforms.

It’s worth remembering that not all online environments operate under the same moral framework, and the terms “good” and “bad” are highly contextual. As the concept of “the metaverse” continues to evolve beyond virtual reality gaming, and as digital communities begin to form, we need to be mindful of the difference between actual Web3 games versus “gamified” social forums, and agree on what types of behavior each should allow.

Moral ambiguity in media

In the realm of online gaming, I say the badder, the better. When it comes to mainstream entertainment, we are in the era of the antihero, where on-screen baddies are often just as relatable as the good guys.

Likewise video games increasingly let players explore their own moral ambiguity. Video games enable novel forms of self-exploration and catharsis since they present players with a spectrum of choices instead of just passive entertainment.

And in these fictional worlds, many people choose to do some pretty crazy stuff. After all, the internet is a rebalancing of indulgence and consequence, and in-game indulgences almost always outweigh their consequences.

Sure, not everyone enjoys being the bad guy in a video game, and that’s totally natural and acceptable. But an academic study on “Moral Choice in Video Games” argues that morally ambiguous gameplay opens the doors to a “cognitive abandonment of moral concerns, which allows players to enjoy games even when they are expected or required to perform morally reprehensible acts.”

When it comes to gaming you don’t have to be a real-life villain to want to occasionally lay siege to a fictional kingdom. However, just because gaming metaverses aren’t meant to reflect real life doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting comparisons.

Real life

Leo Tolstoy famously said that “all happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That could just as easily apply to our “happy” and “unhappy” daily interactions in the sense that it’s easier to think of a million ways to ruin someone’s day than come up with several ways to brighten it. This is only heightened by the metaverse.

Cosplaying as the bad guy in an online game can often provide players more optionality and freedom, because being the “good guy” often leads to narrower goals and play styles.

Of course, whether or not a player has more optionality as a hero or a villain is dependent on how a game is set up. This is especially true in an open-world setting where there are infinitely more potential player actions and outcomes than the original game developers foresaw.

This explorative approach to gameplay arguably immerses players in a broader range of perspectives and requires a higher degree of moral sensitivity – even though players know their choices are ultimately inconsequential in real life. We know that what happens in-game isn’t real. It helps us disengage from the heavier choices we’re often faced with and lets us explore life from a different point of view, seemingly free of consequences. And so, deviant in-game behavior often takes on an air of wanton self-indulgence.

But there are other metaverses that are designed to mirror real life more closely. While many of these entail certain gamified experiences, it’s fair to say that these environments are perceived as more “real” and should be dictated by something more in line with traditional morality, as opposed to what’s permitted in a purely escapist metaverse.

Design decisions

As people’s identities and lived experiences shift online and start feeling more “real,” the consequences of our online decisions will grow heavier. And with companies like OWO and H2L creating sensory devices that allow users to feel everything from a warm embrace to a gunshot wound in the metaverse, there’s a chance that even in-game actions will grow more consequential over time.

Some people have argued that an ethical metaverse will require the help of trustworthy AI moderators, but blockchain networks are literally designed to run on sustainable incentive systems tailored to specific use cases. Other technologies will undoubtedly play a role in supplementing and augmenting on-chain projects, but at the end of the day the onus is on us to design the overarching incentive systems that prioritize fun and safety.

Blockchain-based platforms have the advantage of letting users customize their digital avatars and other assets through active gameplay, and retain true ownership of their evolving online identity in a very real sense. This means that whether you’re an online hero, a baddie or something in between, when it comes to the metaverse you will be a unique, one-of-a-kind entity that continues to exist even after you switch off your device – just like in the real world.

So to all you citizens of the metaverse, I encourage you to be mindful of whether you’re participating in an escapist game or an extension of real life – and enjoy being devious without affecting others in any genuinely harmful ways. After all, calling someone an expletive can be much more damaging and consequential in one virtual setting than cutting someone’s head off in another.

Everything in moderation, including moderation; so act in good faith and enjoy yourselves, sinners.

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Steven Na

Steven Na is the executive producer of Human Park, a consumer-first metaverse entertainment company.