Welcome to the metaverse.

A record $56.9 billion was spent on gaming in 2020 in the United States, marking a 27% increase from 2019, according to the NPD Group. By 2024, the consumer gaming industry is expected to reach a value of $198 billion—not including sales from hardware and devices, research from consulting firm Activate revealed.

According to Michael Wolf, cofounder and chief executive of Activate, gaming is set to emerge as the next dominant technology platform—much the way search engines, mobile phones and social networks redefined industries in previous decades, the Wall Street Journal reported in October 2020.

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Roblox

This evolution has already begun. Roblox—the gaming company that went public on March 10, 2021 and closed its first day on the stock market with a $38 billion valuation—is one company setting the foundation. “The real long-term goal for Roblox,” CNBC reported, “is to build a metaverse where millions (or billions!) can gather to take part in games, meetings, collaborative work and even Roblox’s own virtual economy fueled by its currency called Robux.”

It’s clear: gaming is no longer just for gameplay. Recent activations are pushing the boundaries of traditional gaming, transforming it into a cultural nexus where people can convene for community, entertainment and business.

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SXSW XR World recreates Congress Ave (top), Paramount Theater (bottom left), and the Contemporary Museum's rooftop (bottom right).
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South by Southwest (SXSW) is gamifying its 2021 online festival. In lieu of an in-person event, SXSW will host attendees in an extended reality (XR) recreation of downtown Austin. Festival goers can visit virtual versions of popular landmarks and attend sessions in iconic venues, such as the Paramount Theatre, the Contemporary Austin, Mohawk, Empire Control Room & Garage, and Cedar Street Courtyard.

One of the SXSW events is a virtual interactive play and “exploration into the future of live performance.” Dream, put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company in collaboration with Manchester International Festival, Marshmallow Laser Feast and Philharmonia Orchestra, will be performed by actors in motion capture suits and animated in real-time, appearing to the audience as digital avatars in a virtual world.

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Dream. Image courtesy of the Royal Shakespeare Company and YouTube

The virtual set was designed using Unreal Engine, the 3D production platform that Epic Games used to create Fortnite. “If you look at ‘Minecraft,’ if you look at those gaming worlds, there is a social-ness and a convening there amongst people enjoying an experience,” Sarah Ellis, director of digital development at Royal Shakespeare Company, told the Los Angeles Times. “I think that relates to theater. We are using the technology of gaming, and we are in the spirit of live performance, and we are trying to establish a connection point.” Justin Bolognino, CEO and founder of experience product company Meta, predicts a “massive explosion of XR/VP (Extended Reality, Virtual Production),” he tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “In the space of a small soundstage we can now create massive real-time broadcast effects that will defy what we thought was possible for live broadcast.”

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Unconventional by Xsolla

Game payments firm Xsolla thinks the future of conferences and corporate events lies in gaming. In October 2020, it launched Unconventional, a platform for holding virtual events with 3D avatars inside virtual worlds. The company explains the pivot into events as a logical next step for the industry and says the project is aimed at relieving Zoom fatigue.

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Topia

Topia—one of the apps behind virtual Burning Man—is also reinventing online socializing. When Burning Man pivoted with a fully digital experience in September 2020, Topia allowed festival goers to create virtual versions of their campsites, navigate a vast map of other user-generated campsites and chat with other avatars. The platform takes a page from gaming to offer a more organic formula for socializing. As Quartz reported, it “allows users to recreate many of the social conventions that usually get lost on video calls: instead of having one person talk while everyone else listens, people can splinter off into smaller groups, pull a friend aside to catch up one-on-one, or mill about until they find someone to talk to.”

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Teooh has hosted book launches (top), pub quizzes (bottom left) and board meetings (bottom right).
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Teooh offers a similar formula. The avatar-based virtual event platform has been used for everything from business meetings to birthday parties. Reebok founder Joe Foster launched his memoir on Teooh with a virtual meet and greet; Jay-Z’s Roc Nation held a record release party on the platform; Think Global School, the world’s first traveling high school, gathers all its students and teachers together on Teooh for its weekly assembly meeting; it hosted an 800-person film festival by Animayo in May 2020; and it has served as a gathering space for support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.

Teooh has exploded in popularity since launching in April 2020; as of December, it had amassed an overall population of 50,000 users across 10,000 active rooms, with a total of 12,500 hours spent in the virtual space, Teooh CEO Don Stein tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence.

Bolognino anticipates gamified gatherings will continue to proliferate alongside the return of physical events, giving rise to a new blended reality experience. “Coachella will come back, as will the other major festivals, but they will take place alongside virtualized options,” he tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “Eventually it will be indistinguishable which reality is in play, as many will be seamlessly integrated together.”

Main image of Conventional by Xsolla, courtesy of Xsolla