Clive Thompson is a contributing editor at WIRED magazine and a journalist who writes about technology and science for the New York Times Magazine, WIRED, Smithsonian, and other publications. He has written an article that appears in the printed September 2019 issue of WIRED, but is also available to read on their website, titled Building Virtual Worlds Is a New Form of Self-Expression.
In it, he reports on a trend: people creating immersive, three-dimensional virtual worlds as a means of self-expression. To me, it’s not really a “trend”, since I have been immersed in virtual worlds since 2007. But he makes the point that virtual world building is starting to appeal to a broader, more mainstream audience:
For years, making immersive digital environments—for games or movies—was the province of pros. The tools were hard to use and expensive. But the story of media in the past 20 years has been one of creation tools becoming cheaper and easier to use, and then eventually going mass-market. Editing photos and video was once hard too, but now we do it as proficiently as we wield paper and pencil. As media scholar Katie Salen notes, “We’re culturally more literate with complex tools.”
With 3D design, too, there’s been a boomlet in software like Tinkercad and Sketchup, which lets hobbyists mess around with architectural and industrial design, and there’s Minecraft, where ordinary people can make and share lush, albeit blocky, environments. In many ways, people have tapped into the enjoyment of “world-building,” says media scholar Mimi Ito.
While he does not talk about virtual worlds such as Second Life and social VR platforms such as Sansar, he does mention Dreams as an example of such a world-building tool. Dreams, by a company called Media Molecule, describes itself as:
Dreams is a space where you go to play and experience the dreams of Media Molecule and our community. It’s also a space in which to create your own dreams, whether they’re games, art, films, music or anything in-between and beyond.
Here’s a short trailer for Dreams, which is already available in Early Access on the PlayStation Store for US$39.99, to give you a sense of what you can do with the product:
Clive concludes his article by observing:
As more people become literate in 3D world-building, what will it mean for society? It’s easy to see this moving mainstream, much as image-meme culture did. What began as a bunch of teenagers using Microsoft Paint to mess around with cat photos in the early aughts had by 2016 become a powerful form of political rhetoric—Bernie Sanders with the Beatles (“DID SOMEONE SAY THEY WANT A REVOLUTION?”), Hillary Clinton as the Joker, Pepe the Frog as a fungible symbol for white supremacists.
Right now, world-building is limited by its walled-garden nature; you can only interact with someone’s creation inside the games themselves. But I could imagine these new forms becoming more easily shared outside those confines, at which point they’d metamorphose into a true public discourse—making virtual worlds a way to impact the real one.
And, as I say, a rising tide lifts all boats. Who’s to say that someone who starts off in Minecraft or Dreams, doesn’t decide to carry their newfound talents over to other virtual world and social VR platforms?
Thank you to Selby Evans for the heads up!