When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one!
– Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
When you think about it, Wonderland may have been the original ‘metaverse’.
If that’s not a term you know, you’ll hear it a lot soon. The metaverse is a massive, immersive, global, always-on digital space where it’s possible to engage in all sorts of play, entertainment, communication, socializing, creative and commercial activities. There can be familiar and lifelike experiences and others that are entirely whimsical or even bizarre.
It’s a virtual “rabbit hole,” holding wonders and intrigues not unlike Alice’s literary journeys.
Will there be books and reading in the metaverse? Fortunately, what makes the concept unique is that it will be constructed, piece by piece, by its users. As the Cheshire Cat said, every adventure requires a first step, so publishers, authors, bookstores and librarians can ensure that they have presence by themselves conceiving and creating immersive, engaging spaces for literature.
What Is a Metaverse?
If you’ve read Ready Player One or Snowcrash, you may be anxiously envisioning dystopian near-future virtual refuges. That’s not where we’re headed (at least not soon). There is no fully-formed metaverse now; Roblox is nearest.
Roblox isn’t a game but the “YouTube of games,” with over 20 million different titles, most created by fans. Roblox draws 32 million daily users and 3.6 billion hours of monthly engagement. According to Dubit’s Trends survey, over half of US and UK children 9-12 play on Roblox at least weekly, with substantial percentages in other countries worldwide, as well (below chart).
The metaverse draws on familiar media and publishing concepts: multi-platform, cross-platform and transmedia. Beyond the above-noted role for user-creators, the difference is in the depth of immersion and extent of integration among the various elements. Roblox’ CEO David Baszucki’s eight characteristics of a metaverse align closely with Generations Z and Alpha social and gaming habits. His list includes:
- Identity – persistent avatars that reflect players’ real or imagined selves;
- Friends – the ability to socialize and play with real-world friends, and meet others;
- Immersion – transportation from the day-to-day into a fully-formed alternative world;
- Ubiquity – the capacity to create and play from anywhere, on all types of devices;
- Variety – deep and wide content, accommodating all types of user;
- Low friction – easy onboarding and transitions;
- Economy – in-world goods and service markets that pay creators for their efforts; and
- Trust and Civility – a welcoming, equitable, diverse and kind community.
But Is It For Children?
Like any place real or virtual, the metaverse will have kid-safe “neighborhoods” and others that are “adults-only.” The concept, though, will make complete sense to kids. Who could better benefit from a coherent, connected world of play, creation and learning?
This is why children and teens are already “kickstarting” the metaverse in their social play. During the pandemic, especially, “down on the corner” became “up on the server.” From 2019-2020, the percentage of 8-10 year olds who played Minecraft in the previous 24 hours rose 49%, and Fortnite 29%. Young people ‘hacked’ various platforms, many not meant for kids (e.g., Discord and Zoom), to socialize during the pandemic.
Amidst overwhelming options, everything competes with everything, and content is dispersed across many platforms. Today’s kids frequently become frustrated trying to find a new favorite video, game, book, movie or toy. A well-constructed metaverse will bring multiple media under its umbrella, supporting more seamless, intuitive navigation and recommendation.
Books and Reading in the Metaverse
And what is the use of a book, thought Alice, without pictures or conversations?
– Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Perhaps, again, Alice was imagining a metaverse where visual media and social play complement and supplement – rather than distract from - the hours that young people globally spend reading. For authors and publishers, there are myriad opportunities to publicize works and spark deeper engagement, at much lower cost than traditional marketing or promotions.
There’s ample evidence that immersive worlds draw huge audiences for special events. Concerts, film festivals, gamer gatherings, album releases migrated to game platforms before and during the pandemic, attracted millions, and are only likely to grow in the future. Nate Nanzer, Fortnite's head of global partnerships, says he can envision any of these platforms becoming a "tour stop" for bands.
Why not use them for book launches and readings, to reach global, massive numbers of young readers? They needn’t fully replace wonderful, communal moments of reading to a room full of rapt children, but they can expand books’ reach without the wear-and-tear of travel.
Brick-and-mortar booksellers – the traditional hosts for such events – could be the click-and-order partners for live events. A true metaverse will include spaces to build virtual stores or experiences where goods can be purchased for either in-world or real-world delivery. In Roblox alone, developers earned $209.2 million in the first nine months of 2020, compared to $72.2 million during the same period in 2019. Metaverse commerce will only grow as we imagine of new kinds of immersive experiences.
Invite children to play in the worlds of their favorite books. Recently, Dubit launched a new television series with a very limited Roblox experience set in the characters’ environment and £1000 in promotion. In one weekend, tens of thousands of children played the game. Several players shared game-play videos on YouTube, speculating about this mystery brand.
Within established reading spaces, book groups can form around common interests or genres, unencumbered by physical proximity for gatherings.
Managing IP in the Metaverse
Experts expect that the metaverse will envelop many stories, brands and characters. Fortnite is a prime example of “worlds colliding”: Marvel, DC, Premier League and many others have avatars, outfits, weapons and other objects in the game.
The metaverse will be a space for creation, not just consumption, so children may create games, stories, art and decorations using your IP. There are more than 1700 LEGO games in Roblox, none created by LEGO. Publishers will have to decide what to encourage, allow and limit. Dubit’s “fanatomy” model suggests that permitting creation around favorite IP (within limits of propriety) deeps fans devotion.
We don’t know yet what story-world and marketing models will flourish in the metaverse. Will every publisher have its own “park,” where families can engage with all imprints and titles? This is certainly best for thematic or age-group cross-promotion, and may especially benefit writers of single titles. For serials, a unique, deep branded space may be preferable, devoted just to exploration of the particular series. Booksellers, of course, will want a comfortable environment for discovery, sampling and choice across the full range of books.
What About Libraries?
The US and the UK present a compelling contrast around the launch of television. The UK created the public-service BBC and only allowed commercial service when that was well established. The US began with commercial TV and only later realized it had forgotten dedicated public channels. PBS – wonderful as it is – has always struggled compared to the BBC, because public service wasn’t the founding ethos.
As noted, the metaverse is still emerging. Its development will be shaped by users as well as business interests. We have a rare opportunity to enshrine public service values and content from the beginning, adequately resourced to compete head-to-head with kids’ other options, and not hidden in hard-to-find corners of cyberspace.
What does a public library look like in the metaverse? Could they better reach underserved audiences, in partnership with schools and community centers? Can AI make better recommendations that will engage and stretch readers? When it comes to lending essentially limitless and reproducible digital materials, what’s fair for both libraries and publishers?
Most of all, how would virtual libraries be funded, without cannibalizing physical, neighborhood libraries? Who is the “Andrew Carnegie of the metaverse”?
"Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
That depends a good deal on where you want to get to, said the Cat."
– Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The TV, game and app industries are all strategizing and building toward the metaverse, full steam ahead. Now is the time to plan for how children will read, review, recommend, create and share in immersive digital worlds. Unlike Alice, it’s important to know where you want to end up, as getting “somewhere” is actually nowhere in a competitive kids entertainment environment.
David Kleeman – a 35-year children’s media professional – is SVP of Global Trends for Dubit, a UK-based research and strategy consultancy and digital studio, focused on children and teens. Dubit has created multiple EdTech solutions for reading and literacy companies and organizations.