Upgrade to the Metaverse?

For the ifa Research Programme "Culture and Foreign Policy" Manouchehr Shamsrizi explores the potential of video games and so-called metaverses for Germany's foreign cultural and educational policy.

Manouchehr Shamsrizi is considered an "allrounder in the digital world". He is the co-founder of the research group gamelab.berlin at the Humboldt University in Berlin, develops video games for people with dementia and is a lecturer at the Leuphana University in Lüneburg on the social effects of gaming. For the ifa Research Programme "Culture and Foreign Policy" he explores the potential of video games and so-called metaverses for Germany's foreign cultural and educational policy.

At the latest when Facebook was renamed as Meta, the term "metaverse" became a talking point. In the last election campaign, the French President Emmanuel Macron also talked about creating a European metaverse. So, will we also soon be living in the "metaverse"?

Manouchehr Shamsrizi: As far as definitions are concerned, we are in the Wild West, so there is no clear-cut answer to this question. Currently, a battle is raging to gain the prerogative of interpretation for this hyped term. Strictly speaking, the term did not originate in Silicon Valley but in the science fiction literature of the 1990s.

White controller © Igor Karimov via unsplash

A virtual space for social interaction

What does the term mean to you? 

Shamsrizi: At least, bringing together various technologies for things such as virtual or augmented realities, cloud infrastructures, virtual property etc. The aim is always to create a virtual space for social interaction. There will never be the metaverse, but rather parallel worlds developing from different sources.  And, in turn, different concepts of what constitutes a metaverse will be associated to this.

Acquisition and trading of virtual property are the focus in crypto-blockchain communities with a decentralised organisation structure. In many gaming communities, exchange and immersion are more important, i.e. the impression of real "social presence". Many metaverse precursors, so-called proto-metaverses, already exist. In gaming,  Minecraft, Fortnite und Roblox are classically viewed like this.

Why should  foreign cultural and educational policy occupy itself with this? 

Shamsrizi: It should do so because the subject has many inherent risks and opportunities.  For one, the reach is huge. There are an estimated three billion gamers worldwide, who meet at exhibitions, at tournaments and especially on platforms such as Twitch, where video games are streamed live. But these are also the locations where frameworks for political interpretation and narratives are disseminated, which gamers apply to the real circumstances of their lives. Foreign cultural and educational policy can no longer ignore this. 

Foreign cultural and educational policy needs an upgrade to the metaverses!

Should intermediary organisations like ifa also think about its own presence in the metaverse?

Shamsrizi: Why not? Foreign cultural and educational policy needs an upgrade into the metaverses! Much would be gained if your actors could also do what they do in the analogue world in the metaverse. For example, creating a spin-off in Minecraft, engaging in discussion on Twitch, letting diplomats game publicly, developing your own digital formats -  and, in particular, also organising programmes for minorities that do not belong to the core target groups of Western corporations.

Virtual reality simulator © Eugenio Marongiu via picture alliance/Westend61

The creative industries are demonstrating what is possible. Fortnite hosts concerts, exhibitions and festivals; museums have opened virtual spin-offs. In the blockchain-based Decentraland, Barbados has opened an embassy, enabling the small state to perform global public diplomacy.

You have already mentioned it: what are the associated risks for foreign cultural and educational policy?

Shamsrizi: Apart from fake news and disinformation, which of course can be spread excellently via metaverses, to continue ignoring the issue poses a great risk. Our research has shown that foreign cultural and educational policy is insufficiently prepared. ifa's current External Cultural Policy-Monitor still even describes social media such as Facebook and Twitter as "novel"; video games are not even covered! And that's worrying, because in the digital realm, states certainly do not exert the greatest influence via their Twitter and Facebook accounts, but have also shifted to proto-metaverses.

Digital technologies versus analogue mindset

Which final recommendation would you like to make with regard to Germany's foreign cultural and educational policy? 

Shamsrizi: Your actors should intensify their engagement with the topic and be active on existing platforms. In this context, it is important to fully immerse yourself in the gamers' world. Nothing is more tragic than using digital technologies with an analogue mindset, expecting that a metaverse runs like the analogue world. For example, if I organise a cultural exchange programme in Minecraft, I cannot explain to the target group why the internet suddenly has opening hours and that you are only allowed to play until 7 p.m. because no representative of the intermediary organisation is present afterwards. I have experienced that myself.

If I want to be active in a metaverse, then I have to adapt to its culture – and usually have to be present day and night. So, my main recommendation would be to rely much more strongly on your institute's own potential. Given that there are some three billion gamers out there, the likelihood that you can find a person among your ranks who knows a lot about video games is large. Someone like that is more apt to kickstart a project than any external agency.

To conclude with a quote from a recent study: "How disruptive is the metaverse? It depends on how well you know it."

The interview was conducted by Juliane Pfordte. 


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