The Problem With Meta's Approach to Avatars in Horizon Worlds — Excerpt, <em>Making a Metaverse That Matters</em>

With news that Meta's Horizon Worlds metaverse platform is finally coming to mobile in the run-up to next month's Meta Connect developer conference, here's an excerpt from Making a Metaverse That Matters on the fundamental mistakes Meta is still making in its approach to avatars — including insights from Second Life co-founder Cory Ondrejka, who went on to become a top VP at Facebook, led the company's acquisition of Oculus VR — but has serious misgivings about Meta's “infantilized human avatars”:

Zuckerberg avatar Horizon Worlds mobile

Meta’s confusion over avatars is best illustrated by the strangely avatarized version of Mark Zuckerberg himself — the one from 2022, with huge, childlike eyes worthy of a Margaret Keane painting.

The backlash and ridicule that followed was so fierce, it even seemed to hurt Meta’s stock price. While market fluctuations are impelled by many factors, the simple fact is that Meta’s share price was 181, on the evening of August 15th, 2022, when the big-eyed announcement was made. By August 19 — with no other obvious factor at play, beyond the social virality of Mark Zuckerberg’s bizarre avatar — Meta’s share price had fallen to 167.

Scrambling in response to such a storm of Internet snark, Zuckerberg hastily posted a new update to his Facebook wall, depicting a much more detailed and realistic version of his avatar, which looked even more like Zuckerberg IRL.  

This follow-up confirmed that Meta really did seem to believe that ideally, metaverse platform avatars should resemble their real world users as much as possible.

For newcomers to metaverse platforms, this is a common assumption, enforced by mainstream press coverage, which tends to cover virtual world events involving real life celebrities — for instance, Travis Scott in Fortnite, or Lil Nas X in Roblox. (More on them in Chapter 10.) For occasions like a mixed reality concert, it does make sense for the avatar to resemble their real life owner.

But this is actually the exception. Overwhelmingly, metaverse platform users do not prefer avatars based on their real life appearance — even when the internal tools to customize them that way exist. 

This should have been clear to Meta even before the company began formulating its approach to avatars. By then, the most popular metaverse platforms were very much not architected to be mirror images of its users — Minecraft and Roblox with its blocky or LEGO-like avatars, Fortnite with its expressively stylized cartoonish characters — or to consider a VR-centric example, the floating marionette-esque avatars of Rec Room.

According to a survey of hundreds of thousands of gamers conducted by Nick Yee and his QuanticFoundry firm, by the way, about 1 in 3 men prefer to play as female avatars. (With about 1 in 10 females choosing male avatars.)  

Why did Meta design avatars to look like their real life owner, when 1 in 3 males don’t even want avatars that share their real life gender?

As we’ll explore in later chapters, the popularity of non-realistic avatars reflects the internal motivations of people who most enjoy metaverse platforms — especially the very young, who comprise their core user base: They are in virtual worlds where they can explore and create and experiment with identity, which they are still developing and in their own lives. 

With all that said, it was mysterious how Meta went ahead with mirror world avatars anyway. I had assumed it was the consequence of deep market research, with thousands of volunteers reviewing dozens of avatar options and customization suites.

An insider recently told me the reason was simpler than that: 

“As far as looking like your real life [appearance],” they explained, “the thinking behind that was that people will be less inclined to harass others. Same idea behind only having one profile to your name, and your real name.”

In other words, the developers applied the Facebook identity model to their metaverse platform. (Even though Facebook itself is rife with harassment.)

“[Everybody] operating in a world of metaversal punditry comes to assume, you want a single singular permanent identity and you want that singular permanent identity to kind of look like you,” Cory Ondrejka observes now. “And we know from 50 years of online communities, that that's wildly untrue.

“The reality is that people have roles, people have modes of interaction. They don't want to always show up as themselves either by name or by appearance. What we saw in Second Life is that many people just put on outfits like clothing. And even in situations like experiments with IBM where it was initially thought, well, you know, for serious business to work, you got to show up wearing a business suit — not as you know, you know, a fire dragon. And then it turns out the fire dragon is just as welcome into the business community and everything works fine.”

During his time at Meta, I wonder if Cory Ondrejka had ever told Mark Zuckerberg about some of the avatars Cory created for himself in Second Life: They include a floating cartoon sun (the kind you’d see in a Betty Boop short), a Transformers-type robot that could fold itself into a jet, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a 3D rendition of an early 2000s Internet meme. (Long story but look it up.)

At any rate, once again ignoring Ondrejka’s learnings from Second Life, Meta positioned its Horizon avatars to be “infantilized human avatars” (in Cory’s words), architected to look like their owner. 

Ondrejka agrees with my thesis that Meta’s design decisions around avatar identity and appearance are baked into its corporate DNA.

“I don't want to speak for Mark or Meta's choices,” as he puts it. “You can look at the public information about Facebook, which has been the notion of having strongly an identity that is one to one mapped to your real identity. And doing that helped Facebook grow to the scale it grew. I think the challenge is, it's pretty clear that [this approach] doesn't map to games, to virtual worlds, to 3D spaces.

“But they can figure that out or they won't. That's their journey to go on.”

Making a Metaverse That Matters is now available in bookstores and online:

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