8 min read

Beloved stuffed pigs, virtual decor and the Metaverse

Thoughts about the ugliness and beauty of the virtual realities we escape into
An animated gif from the game Unpacking
A clip from the video game Unpacking.

Hello grownups!

Have you played Unpacking yet? It's a lovely little zen puzzle game where you follow an unnamed character over the course of eight house moves, and help her to unpack her boxes. I thought I'd hate it, just because it feels too much like my real life right now. I've had five homes in the past three years, and I am tired of moving. My partner and I have it down to a well-polished dance now: wrapping, boxing, labelling, inventorying, discarding. It's fascinating to see what you keep, what becomes more and more essential just from each successive act of having been boxed, unboxed, chosen.

But that's precisely what makes the game so extraordinary: from the simple premise of unpacking boxes, a rich story starts emerging, told by the objects themselves. The stuffed pig she keeps into adulthood; the framed photo that she doesn't. In one of the levels, the character moves in with a boyfriend who has made no space for her stuff. Our boy hasn't even cleared a drawer. You end up having to store some of her most beloved items under the bed, stash her books in piles in a corner of the room. It's heartbreaking. (I took my petty revenge by having her display her tampon boxes as prominently as possible, because you can just tell that he's the type of dude who'd be bothered by that. TAKE THAT, FITNESS BOY.)

I'm not going to tell you more about it except to say that this simple little game managed to make me tear up twice (once in a sad way, once in a happy way), and I loved it. I did not expect to feel so emotional about decorating digital rooms.

The first computer my family ever owned was a Packard Bell sporting Windows 95, cream CRT monitor the size of a boulder, the most sophisticated technological marvel my nine-year-old eyes had ever seen. It came pre-installed with this shell for the operating system called Navigator, which was designed to help people who'd never used a computer before to figure out what the heck was going on. Navigator was a virtual house with different rooms in it, with the apps presented as friendly "real-world" stand-ins. If you wanted to play music, you clicked on the hifi in the living room. You'd find a word processing tool in the office. If you wanted to access the computer's clock settings, you'd click the clock on the wall. If you were looking for the user manual for the printer, or an electronic cook book, or the Encarta Encyclopedia, you'd look for them on the pixellated bookshelf.*

I swear, this seemed incredibly cool at the time.

A screenshot from Navigator, showing a virtual living room
This is how you operated your computer in 1996, gen-Zs

There was a kids room, where you could drag icons for your favourite games onto digital bookshelves for easy access. You could also - and this was by far the coolest feature - change the decor of this room. My brother decorated his like a spaceship; I was all about the jungle theme.

Incredible, how strong this desire is to personalise, to claim as your own, to leave your stamp on a space, even if that space is a fake room that you see for 30 seconds before launching Rodent's Revenge.

The tenth most popular video game in history is the Sims, a game that is almost entirely about decorating houses (and torturing virtual people by trapping them in a 3x3 room and watching them go mad ... what? Just me?). It has sold an estimated 200-million copies since Sims 1 launched in 2000. Eighth on that list is Minecraft, another game about creating virtual spaces. And while some of us spent the endless months of the 2020-2021 lockdowns frantically redecorating our real houses, 37-million people were decorating their bright island homes in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

What are we doing when we spend countless hours designing digital rooms? Are we looking for control that we don't have in the real-world? More space than our failed housing policies afford us in our real homes? Is it a way of simply fantasising about our lives? After all, longing for a guest room isn't really about the room, it's longing for guests who could stay there. Often, I think virtual spaces reflect our simplest longings: connection, stability, family, safety.

I find it funny, now, how normcore my teenage Sims homes were, stately mansions with carefully co-ordinated colour schemes in various shades of beige (some deep-seated longing for stability and respectability, maybe?), while my brother, who has a brilliant neurodivergent brain, would build these imaginative strange labyrinths entirely decorated in bathroom tiles.

How odd that many of us have been playing these games over the past couple of difficult years, sitting in our lonely homes, decorating these private interior rooms, because we were longing to be outside, longing to be with other people.

In October last year, anti-democracy activists Facebook declared in an endlessly mockable video that they're rebranding themselves as Meta, and refocusing their business strategy from helping your uncle to spread vaccine-microchip conspiracy theories to building the "Metaverse", which is a vaguely-defined all-encompassing virtual reality platform. Their vision is to create a shared social space in virtual reality, where you can put on your Oculus headset and "go to the office" with 3D avatars of your coworkers, hang out with your friends (presumably while watching ads), and - of course - decorate your virtual house.

There's big money going into this, with the company estimated to have spent $10-billion on Metaverse projects in 2021 alone. To put that into context, if you spent $10,000 (R150,000-ish) every single hour, it would take you 114 years to spend $10-billion. The Metaverse is currently better funded than the Green Climate Fund, the main financial vehicle designed to support developing countries in responding to the challenges of the climate emergency.

Ah yes, the future we all dreamed of, where you can discuss flow-charts with the top halves of your coworkers around a badly designed conference table /s

The term "Metaverse" was coined by Neal Stephenson in his brilliant 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, where the protagonist Hiro Protagonist escapes his miserable real life as a pizza delivery guy for the Mafia by playing a warrior prince in a virtual reality playground. In the future Stephenson imagines, Los Angeles is entirely controlled by corporations, hyperinflation has decimated the economy, and the only safe places that remain are gated housing developments for the rich policed by private security companies. People spend time in the Metaverse mostly because real life is so awful. The novel birthed an entire subgenre of "virtual reality as an escape from a dystopian reality" stories from Ready Player One to The Matrix, to the real-world examples of farmers putting VR headsets on dairy cows to help them forget the horror of their situation, and increase milk yield.

Zuckerberg seems to have missed the dystopian roots of the Metaverse, or chosen to overlook them.

But sure, okay, I guess some form of the Metaverse is probably inevitable now. Remote work is here to stay, at least partly. We do need to build better tools for hybrid workplaces to free us from the unspeakable suffering that is the group Zoom call (the best thing my colleagues and I found was having meetings while playing Don't Starve Together). And VR can be surprisingly immersive if done well. So sure, I can see a need for a VR office space, and I can see the appeal of VR hangouts with your friends.

I'm mostly just skeptical of that space being designed for us by the company who designed Facebook, or any of the tech monopolists for that matter. As Brian Merchant put it in Vice, "The metaverse as Zuckerberg describes it—a shared 3D space where we live and work and view advertising in an embodied internet—would be an actual nightmare if it were to be designed, built, or administered by Facebook, perhaps the most notoriously drab, misinformation-littered, and aesthetically unappealing environment on the web."

We all live in the Internet now. So what would it look like if we insisted on claiming some of the Internet as public space? It seems impossible, but we've done it before with other technologies. We now have public railways and public sewerage systems and public road networks. The BBC is one of the best television and radio networks in the world, and it's a publicly-owned national asset (one that the Tories are diligently trying to hollow out, along with all of the UK's other national assets, like the NHS, thanks okes). What would a Metaverse look like with the equivalent of public parks? With laws and representative democracy?

The Internet was a lifeline in these past two years, but it's not life. Over the past few weeks, I've found myself finally retreating from my virtual spaces. Leaving my WhatsApp groups. Cancelling Zoom dates and instead tentatively booking tickets to go visit my friends, and stay in their real-life guest bedrooms.

I know this is a privilege that not everyone has: my mum, who lives with a disability that makes it difficult for her to leave her house, is already missing how online everyone else was last year. But I'm beyond ready to get back into the meatspace.

I went walking around Epping Forest last weekend. After a few hours of straying further from the paths, I found myself in a copse of trees, trunks stretching flaky-white into the January sky. Birch and Japanese Maples, immigrants like me, thriving here. The ground was a carpet of golden leaves crunching beneath my feet. I spotted a flash of grey fur through the trees and got a huge fright (I'm working on a novel about werewolves, forgive me, I have wolves on the brain). I leapt back, and disturbed a herd of twenty fallow deer, who ran ballerina-lightly right at me before vanishing into the brush. The air smelled of cloves and loam. There was not a virtual whiteboard in sight.

Sam standing in Epping Forest wearing a beanie

Wishing you time in the great outdoors,


*The technical term for this is skeuomorphism, where a bit of software is designed to look like a real-world counterpart. Like how the "trash" icon on your computer looks like a rubbish bin with crumpled up paper inside. Or - funnily - how the call button looks like a landline receiver, or the save icon looks like a stiffy disk, objects that most mobile phone users today have never actually seen.

Updates from Sam-land

  • You know how I like to give each season a theme? Well, this is the last month of my Winter of Courage. It's also February, traditionally the month of luuurve, so I've been reading bell hooks' All About Love: New Visions. It features some of the wisest things I've ever read about how essential honesty is in a relationship, even when it's bloody uncomfortable, and takes a lot of courage. As she says, "lies may help people feel better, but they do not help them know love."
  • My buddy Zane started a poetry club where we send each other a poem on a postcard every month. This month's theme was to write a haiku inspired by the word "sillage" (the smell a perfume leaves in the air after someone leaves a room). This was my contribution.