For all the loathsome talk of the metaverse from companies like Facebook and Epic as the future of reality, many facets of the concept already exist in sandboxes like Roblox. The problem with Roblox for them is that it's a lawless frontier town, one they don't control. Still, Roblox is obscenely popular, so it's popular with brands who don't need control, they just want to advertise products. Enter Nikeland, an official Roblox game from the cobblers at Nike.
Launched this week, it's a social space supposedly inspired by Nike's company headquarters. As well as running around, swimming, hurdling, racing, and buying virtual Nike products, players can play minigames: The Floor Is Lava, Dodgeball, Tag, and such. You can create your own minigames too. What I played seemed fairly typical Roblox minigame fare, albeit with a polished look and plastered with Nike's iconic 'dangerous waterslide' logo.
You can play Nikeland for free through Roblox.
Nike had a Fortnite minigame in 2019, back when Epic's battle royale was the hottest place to advertise your products to children. Fortnite is still huge, no doubt, and still a huge advertising platform, but it's interesting to see Nike turn to Roblox now.
Should the metaverse ever happen (and god knows a lot of money is being put towards trying to make it happen), I'd want it to be closer to the spirit of Roblox than Fortnite or Facebook. Roblox is a trash heap, in the best way. It's an explosion of creativity and ingenuity and self-expression and scamming and joy, rife with copyright infringement. Even a death noise used by so many games turned out to be stolen.
I'd want the metaverse to be as joyful and scrappy and weird as people are. I want a metaverse where roleplayers blag their way into real White House press briefings, hordes of people chase and abandon fads like Squid Game, and virtuapet creators find enough fame to found a whole new studio. For more on the opportunities and oddness, check out Alex Wiltshire's three-part series from 2019, talking with Roblox roleplayers, success stories, and the company themselves.
Epic's tentative steps into the metaverse involve the licensed likeness of Captain America flossing on you during a lightshow promoting a pop star's new album, and Facebook's particular brand of lawlessness enabled genocide. These are not metaverses I desire.
I really enjoyed seeing developer and artist Everest Pipkin discover Roblox (often with a pal of mine, V Buckenham), exploring the odd and unplayed. They have compared it to experiences in their rural teenage years around an abandoned cement foundation in the woods. Sometimes it hosted hangouts and parties and life's precious moments, but it was usually just an grafittied slab of cement in the woods with a few old chairs.
"To stand in these places is to stand in a place where desire was met," Pipkin wrote. "Where for a moment, something that was yours was carved out of the ugly body of online corporate games culture. Like building a fort in the woods between the highway and the mall."
This is, alas, a form of metaverse so wildly untenable that even now I accept that we're infinitely more likely to see a controlled and sterile metaverse which exists primarily because huge companies want a cut of people selling 'limited edition' virtual superhero merch and just the ugliest god damn stupid Twitter avatars you ever did see.
Pipkin also built a dream diary in Roblox, which has some beautiful scenes. I'd strongly recommend a visit.