There is no doubt that the metaverse is full of promise as a new creator economy that offers access and equity to people online. That’s not a new promise—it’s been the goal ever since the internet first entered homes more than 20 years ago. So, what stopped this dream from becoming reality?
Web 2.0, the most recent iteration of the internet characterized by the rise of social media and user-generated content, did much to reframe the social consciousness around race, gender, sexuality, disability and more. While social platforms elevated a diverse range of voices, the leadership behind them are often white and male, betraying the notion that digital is the welcome space for everyone that it should be.
As we begin to envision and engage with the metaverse, we have the responsibility to help build a digital environment that is truly inclusive and accessible, that gives everyone (regardless of ability, economic situation, or any other factor) the chance to create and participate. Because the more people who can, the better the metaverse will be for everyone.
We All Have a Responsibility to Make the Metaverse Accessible
There’s the phrase “Nothing for us without us.” What it means is that the design of policies should not be decided without the representation and participation of those who are affected. To this respect, the gaming industry has made considerable inroads with the disability community: the much-celebrated accessibility features of racing game Forza Horizon 5, which released late last year, were created in partnership with direct input from the community. These features tend to trickle down into other games and immersive experiences like those found in the metaverse. Still, brands and businesses that lead in the creation of the space—builders of hardware, platforms and digital experiences—can do much more to enable true access and participation.
Broadly speaking, accessibility in the metaverse means providing an equitable playing field so everyone can contribute to the key economic driver it is: the metaverse economy is expected to be worth $13 trillion by 2030. Yet only 63% of the world’s population are connected to the internet at all. Lack of connectivity isn’t reserved for developing countries. Nearly a third of New York City households lack broadband internet, a base requirement for the immersive experiences that characterize the metaverse. Having access to broadband internet is essential for any creator hoping to build, sell or trade assets in these new worlds, or to develop the fundamental skills needed to thrive in the metaverse.
Many countries are addressing these concerns by declaring digital access a human right, including Estonia, which has established a national digital literacy system. But we shouldn’t wait for governments to catch up to the pace of technology; businesses can play an important role in upskilling and providing access. This could include supporting coding camps or donating hardware to schools, helping the next generation prepare and keep competitive for the virtualized economy.
The Importance of Representation and Self-Expression
Building is a fundamental activity in the metaverse, in which audiences participate in shaping experiences by leveraging the tools provided by developers. This makes representation important in metaverse experiences and storytelling, enabling audiences to construct identities that feel authentic to them—whether that means a 1:1 representation of the physical self, a complete departure from reality, or somewhere in-between.
Just as accessibility options have opened gaming to large audiences, a wide variety of representational options can enable belonging in the metaverse. While there’s still room to improve, games like The Sims serve as an excellent example for how to represent diversity to construct avatars and identities, like expansive gender options and eliminating the exclusivity of options between male or female characters. Likewise, those building and designing metaverse experiences can include inclusive options like Black hairstyles, prosthetics, assistive/mobility devices and more to ensure everyone in the metaverse can be themselves.
Still, real-world biases are likely to spill into the metaverse—meaning people may not always feel comfortable representing themselves in ways that reflect their physical appearance. Hardware limitations may also affect the faithfulness in representing a wide variety of bodies; for example, VR headsets on the market today were originally developed with certain color gradients as a lesser priority, evoking similar issues in photography from the days of film to now. Though by enabling diversity in both the creation and participation in these spaces, developers of metaverse platforms and experiences can cultivate a digital culture of respect where we hope to see a shift away from these concerns.
Platforms Must Anticipate Safety Concerns
Access and representation are crucial so that people of all walks of life can visibly participate in the metaverse, either as industry professionals building the technology or audiences participating in communities and experiences. But these efforts fall flat if it’s not a safe space for everyone, meaning an inclusive and equitable metaverse must account for user safety.
As we’ve seen over the last two decades online, anonymity can lead to destructive behavior—and there’s no reason to believe those behaviors will simply go away in a more embodied digital space. Moderating in digital has historically been difficult to scale, though the developers of games and tech platforms can mitigate unsafe experiences by implementing features that help people take greater control over how others can interact with them. The Safe Zone feature in Meta’s Horizon Worlds, for example, allows people to distance themselves from others by setting personal boundaries. Metaverse platforms can continue to evolve and adapt these features as needed.
No single company or culture can build an equitable and inclusive metaverse. That’s why those in our industry—including the brands, partners and tech platforms we work with—must unite with the communities we serve to develop open, secure and trusted virtual environments. Together, we have an opportunity to do better and build a new era in digital that’s inclusive from the start. Let’s get working.
Insights for this piece were contributed by Catherine D. Henry, SVP Growth, Metaverse & Innovation Strategy; Lewis Smithingham, Director of Creative Solutions; James Nicholas Kinney, Chief of Diversity and Talent Discovery; Iulia Brehuescu, Digital Accessibility Manager; Sam Haskin, Inclusive Marketing Practice Lead; and Rona Mercado, Chief Marketing Officer, Cashmere Agency.
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