Protecting the virtual worlds of the future

Pixelated peace in an anxious world

In the open world video game Red Dead Redemption II, you’re given a lot of freedom to play your way. While there are missions to complete if you want to reach the end of the story, these are optional.

You don’t have to join the gang for the next train robbery or bank heist. If you prefer, you can ride out into the plains on your horse and set up camp for the night.

You can even take a boat out into the middle of a lake and spend an hour or two fishing.

As video games become increasingly complex virtual worlds, developers are adding the ability for you to lose yourself within them.

They invite you to do your own thing. To find a few moments of pixelated peace, away from the stresses of the real world.

The Red Dead Redemption II model has been followed by the developers of Ghost of Tsushima - another open world game released on the PS4 just a few weeks ago. Set in Feudal Japan, you control a Samurai called Jin who is tasked with defending his island home from Mongol invaders.

A large part of your time is spent exacting vengeance on these Mongal hordes. But there are also plenty of moments of solitude.

You’re actively encouraged to climb mountains and pay homage to shrines, for example. You can choose to take a bath in a hot spring and contemplate a particular topic. Or you can sit by a lake and compose some Haiku.

Game developers don’t have to add these little side quests to their virtual worlds. But they understand that by doing so they give players more freedom.

One of the consequences of better writing and graphics is that gamers now feel they can relate more to the character they’re controlling. Playing these games increasingly feels like an escape to another world. And in 2020, escaping from the real world has sounded like a pretty attractive idea. Meditative moments within games like Red Dead Redemption II or Ghost of Tsushima have offered relief to millions in recent months.

And here at Licel, we wonder whether this might be a pointer to the future.

In the years to come, it’s likely that we’ll spend even more time in these virtual worlds. Some commentators think that one of the impacts of mass unemployment in the wake of automation and AI improvements will be a widespread loss of meaning.

Complex games with an emotional pull might just offer people a way to recapture this meaning. But just like in the real world, there will be those who operate in the shadows in these new virtual worlds. Those who would look to illegally profit from them and steal from others.

The challenge, then, for developers is not only to create compelling virtual worlds. It’s also to create virtual worlds that are safe for people to get lost in.

The search for meaning

The covid-19 crisis has had a devastating impact on job security. A global crisis has led to massive job losses and has affected millions.

But the impact has been psychological as well as financial.

Most of us tend to find meaning via our work. Take away our ability to work, and levels of anxiety and depression skyrocket.

The hope is that as we gain more control over the virus, life will return to the way it was before. And that means jobs will return, too. But longer term, there’s a fear that improvements in AI and automation will render human input in many areas obsolete.

This isn’t the first time that technology has threatened jobs, of course. During the Industrial Revolution, some worried that machines would put people out of work, too. But as Yuval Noah Harari says, in the past, people could more easily switch from one low-skilled job to another. A farm hand could become a factory worker. Technology simply created different kinds of low-skilled work.

The next technological revolution looks like it will be different. Automation will impact the vast majority of low-skilled jobs.

In a world with fewer jobs, some kind of Universal Basic Income would be needed. But what about beyond that financial support? What exactly would people do with all their free time without any work to do?

Some, like Harari, think that virtual worlds might hold the answer. Without tasks to give them meaning in the real world, people would turn to virtual ones.

They’d look for meaning there, instead.

And they wouldn’t be the only ones. Even those lucky enough to keep their jobs in the future might suffer from a crisis of meaning. In the 20th century, it was drummed into us that meaning could be found via consumerism. In other words, buying products that gave us status and made us feel good about ourselves.

But these days consumerism doesn’t have the power it once did. And a lot of people feel guilty about the impact of their buying habits on the environment.

This is another trend that might drive increasing numbers to virtual worlds in the future. Not only to find meaning there, but also to spend time in a place where they can act without worrying about the negative consequences of their actions.

Losing yourself inside the game

Earlier this year, during the covid-19 lockdown, Time Magazine published an article that argued the benefits of gaming for mental health. In it, Michelle Colder Carras, a public health researcher at John Hopkins University, stated that games could offer relief for lots of people.

“When you’re battling yourself with traumatic thoughts, you can lose yourself in a game.” She said.

“What games are able to do for people in mental health recovery, all of society now needs.”

But for gamers to want to lose themselves within a game, there has to be an emotional attachment. That’s a big factor behind the trend of developers creating more meaningful journeys in open world games.

If virtual worlds are to allow us to escape, they have to offer us some kind of meaning that’s missing in our own lives. And at the same time they have to reflect our personal journeys.

This is likely to be a tricky balance for creators in the coming years.

In an article from The Verge earlier this year, Robin Hunicke, professor of game design at the University of California Santa Cruz, said games have to confront the real world. Hunicke feels that games must tackle the challenges facing young people today, including a loss of control, and increased anxiety about an uncertain future.

It’s easy to imagine the virtual worlds of the future teaching young people valuable lessons that could also help them in the real world. After all, open world games are getting bigger and bigger, as this video shows. As technology improves and virtual worlds become increasingly complex, it will be easier for gamers to forge their own path.

One trend - highlighted by the success of Minecraft and the soon-to-be-released Main Assembly is for gamers to build within worlds. To create their own little virtual worlds within larger ones. A mix of virtual reality and augmented reality will help their experiences there feel ultra realistic.

But there’s a danger to all of this freedom.

The more players are given license to build and contribute to these virtual worlds, the more threats might lurk within them. Not everybody will share the same noble intentions to make our new virtual worlds positive places to be.

The covid-19 crisis has taught us that hackers prey on the vulnerable. There has been a surge in the number of attacks in recent months while people’s defences have been down. At the exact moment people have been more reliant than ever on digital technology. And at a time when people have been more trusting than ever of emails and SMS messages from authorities.

In the future, a group who have fewer opportunities to earn a living in the real world and who are reliant upon virtual worlds to find meaning would certainly fit the “vulnerable” tag. So it’s not hard to imagine them being targeted by bad actors.

Protecting the virtual worlds of the future

One of the most anticipated video game releases of 2020 was The Last of Us Part II. For years its developer, Naughty Dog, had worked tirelessly on its storyline. But then, just a few weeks out from its release, hackers broke into its servers and released key elements of the plot online.

Apparently the bad actors responsible for the hack were able to take advantage of security vulnerabilities from a previous game the studio had made. This enabled them to download sensitive data from the server.

The hack was a reminder - if it were needed - that the video game industry is constantly at risk from malicious attacks. Intellectual property (IP) theft like the Last of Us Part II example is one of the most common attacks. But it isn’t the only way that hackers can harm individual gamers and developers’ reputations.

For console and mobile games where players can make in-game purchases, individual account and payment information can be stolen.

Hackers can even circumvent the in-app purchase system, benefiting from extra content without paying for it.

They can abuse guest accounts. They can manipulate network traffic. And they can repackage and republish mobile games in the hope unsuspecting players will download their version instead.

For developers, attacks can result in lost revenues, games being pirated, loss of IP, and, perhaps most damaging of all, loss of reputation.

But for individual gamers themselves, the stakes in the future could be equally high.

Imagine a near future where what you do inside a virtual world becomes just as important to your self esteem and mental health as what you do in the real world. Imagine that you’ve invested hundreds of hours as well as money into building up your virtual avatar. Now imagine the impact of a bad actor breaking into the developer’s server and stealing that avatar or wiping its achievements.

As with lots of advances in digital technology - some of which we’ve covered on this site - it’s a question of getting the balance right. Sometimes the desire to be pioneers comes at a cost. It means that security isn’t properly thought through.

But as the covid-19 crisis has taught us, it’s often the vulnerable within society who stand to lose the most from malicious attacks.

If commentators like Yuval Noah Harari are right and virtual worlds do become a vital escape for people in the future, then we need to start thinking about how to keep them safe.