The metaverse must bridge the digital divide

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We must avoid deepening existing inequalities and create digital environments where everyone can belong

People with their sights set on the metaverse have made big promises about how it can bring people together by building new communities, engaging with audiences and helping us present ourselves in new ways. 

For business, the metaverse carries wide implications for an era of virtual commerce. While exciting, it also creates urgency to close the digital divide. 

As we embrace the metaverse, we must avoid deepening existing inequalities and create digital environments where everyone can belong. To see how far we’ve come (and where to go next), I looked to the video game industry, which has wrestled with similar challenges.

Redefining the “gamer”

Gaming is adjacent to the metaverse. Social games like Animal Crossing, Roblox and Fortnite allow people to connect virtually. The same skills and tools required to make games are used to build a broader category of virtual experiences, like extended reality and product configurators.

It’s amazing to see games become more inclusive. An industry once dominated by competitive and violent first-person shooting games has given way to narratives and experiences focused less on killing and more on building. This has allowed more people to explore their individual interests within the gaming world.

This shift has also helped players form more authentic in-game identities. The Sims made marriage available to same-sex couples long before many US states. Now, it has settings to customize gender outside the traditional binary. Simple yet effective features like these help people of all kinds see themselves in the games they play. 

Video games that cater to wider interests also increase in popularity and, ultimately, ROI. The pool of players is noticeably growing as more diverse groups join: 45% of gamers in the US today are women, and LGBTQ+ gamers spend 8% more time gaming per month than others. 

These findings are encouraging, but they only speak to one side of the industry — the audience — and not the people who make and profit off games. There won’t be true inclusivity until diverse teams can create digital experiences — not just consume them. 

Diversifying the developer community  

Gaming remains exclusive to diverse developers. Activision Blizzard, the largest video game publisher in the US and Europe, is the latest to come under fire for creating unwelcome environments for those who aren’t straight, white men. 

As gaming takes on a larger influence in culture, it’s disheartening that these barriers prevail. In response, tech companies, including my own employer, are focusing on hiring multicultural teams that authentically reflect their communities. 

These initiatives are crucial, because the virtual world has the potential to drive real revenue. We saw this with the hype surrounding NFTs, which pulled digital artists into the spotlight — particularly for creators shut out from the traditional art world. 

But technology that is freeing for some can provide new barriers to others. As the metaverse opens more opportunities for people to design, build and distribute virtual products or communities, businesses must solve the digital divide for creators and developers.

What we can do 

Supporting digital talent goes beyond hiring. We need to help underserved creatives access the technology needed to hone digital skills, which often requires prohibitively expensive tools. Otherwise, we risk shutting out a significant cohort from the new world economy.

When I lived in New York, where nearly one third of residents lack home internet access, I founded the XR Creatives to help XR enthusiasts of all backgrounds and skill levels create immersive experiences. Local tech employees generously donated their time. 

One of our biggest stumbling blocks early on was that game engines were expensive to license. Last year Unity Technologies, makers of the popular Unity engine, made access to its Learning Premium content free for everyone. Media.Monks partnered with Unreal Engine to launch Unreal Futures, inspiring the next generation to create. 

I’m optimistic that the metaverse will enable a positive environment for digital self-actualization. But it’s only possible if we make that space inviting for everyone. I commend those who are up to the task.

Catherine D. Henry is SVP growth at Media.Monks.


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