Should the Church invest the metaverse?

Approximately every twenty years, a technological revolution takes place. First, the cell phone. Then the internet. Today, tech experts are betting on the metaverse. This 3D parallel world is accessible by putting on a virtual reality mask. The user then creates an account and an avatar. This digital character then moves through the metaverse – or rather metaverses, because there are hundreds of them.

Every tech giant wants their own. In October 2022, Marc Zuckerberg, founder of Meta (parent company of Facebook), had already spent 21 billion dollars to develop Horizon Worlds, his own metaverse. But there are others, such as Decentraland, The Sandbox, Roblox… Once their metaverse has been chosen, the user is ready to live an immersive experience, such as attending a virtual concert, participating in a 3D meeting with colleagues , or play with others. Today, 80% of the metaverse is dedicated to video games (like Fortnite or Minecraft). The technology is in its infancy: the avatars are not very believable and the helmet hurts your head. “It will take between five and ten years for the metaverse to become a habit”predicts Stéphane Longeard, boss of Microids, publisher and creator of video games.

The dubious general public

Other uses are developing, for health or work. Since September, the European advertising campaign of the Meta group has been deployed from the slogan “Even if the metaverse is virtual, its impact will be real”. She illustrates the point by showing a surgeon practicing on a virtual dummy, or a student transporting himself to an amphitheater and manipulating an object.

For the moment, in France, only commercial companies invest in the metaverse to modernize the image of their brand. In January 2022, Carrefour bought land on The Sandbox, worth around 300,000 euros. He hopes to launch products or events there. In the meantime, the land serves as a showcase for its logo. And all the press talked about it… The general public remains dubious in front of this nebulous universe. According to a barometer from the Iligo research agency, 62% of French people would not see the point of virtual worlds. The action of Meta has also fallen by more than 70% this year. And for good reason. What use would the metaverse be if not to turn us into ever more passive consumers? According to a study, in 2026, one in four people will circulate at least one hour a day in the metaverse. It is not yet known whether this duration will replace or be added to the daily three and a half hours spent today on smartphones. Be that as it may, it is a question of time taken from the interior life, silence, the encounter with the other or a personal relationship with God.

In addition to the time spent, the very creation of a metaverse remains problematic. It looks like a tower of Babel that men, dissatisfied with earthly Creation, would like to erect as they please. An entirely disembodied and digitized universe, including Father Jean-Baptiste Bienvenu, of the Padreblog – a collective of priests present on social networks – affirms the“incompatibility with our faith”. And yet, Padreblog evangelizes today on the Internet. Above all, the priest warns the user of a disconnection with reality: “The avatar created to join the metaverse is created regardless of our gender, age, or physical appearance. A 70-year-old pervert can easily hide behind the digital representation of a 17-year-old girl.

“We must test the possibilities offered”

But can we leave a world, however harmful, without any Christian presence? The priest replies that there will always be time to invest the metaverse when it is suffi ciently populated, which is not the case today. According to the American online media CoinDesk, there would be only 38 active users on Decentraland, even if the platform denied, claiming 55,000 users per month.

“As long as there are not several billion people on the metaverse, distrust”, concludes Father Bienvenu. On the contrary, “we must test the different possibilities offered by the metaverse”, replies Hugo Penazzo, Metaverse Business Developer at Exclusible, a company specializing in software development. It is for him to seek what particular uses Christians could make of it, and to target the areas of relevance. Moreover, affirms the young expert, associations such as Unicef ​​or WWF have already taken over the premises. American evangelical v-churches (virtual churches) are also active. “The Church could position itself on more pleasant and effective work meetings in 3D, or gatherings to federate its community”, imagine the professional. And, of course, attract young people since, in February 2022, only 31% of people over 50 had heard of the metaverse, compared to 42% of 18-24 year olds.

Will, first virtual homeless

In March 2022, the French association Entourage, whose mission is to create social ties with excluded people using technology, created Will. The metaverse’s first homeless person can be seen on virtual reality platform Decentraland. When a user meets Will, the avatar tells him: “I am here to remind you that more than 300,000 homeless men and women live in the most absolute exclusion and are deprived of social ties. » Since then, the application has gained notoriety and users: 5,960 accounts created, compared to 4,550 the previous year. Jean-Marc Potdevin, its founder, talks about “positive technology” : “Will gives us the opportunity to both engage people outside the metaverse, and touch those inside. »

Hugo Penazzo’s position is shared by Brother Éric Salobir, who defines himself as “passer between Christian humanists and the world of technology”. According to this Dominican who chairs the executive committee at the Human Technology Foundation, a research and action network that places people at the heart of the development of technologies, it is not a question of asking why, but how the Church must be present. on the metaverse. The institution, an expert in humanity for two thousand years and sensitive to the common good, seems to him well placed to bring its voice: “The Church must be present in the reflection, especially on the ethics of digital technologies and the way in which the human presence on the metaverse can change our being in the world. »

Integrate the poorest, facilitate access to education

More than the Church as an institution, Brother Éric Salobir invites every Christian to explore this new world “to build applications from what he finds on site”. The metaverse could help the inclusion of the poorest, facilitate access to education, culture and other beneficial uses for humans. Still it would be necessary that the price of the computer equipment, in particular of the virtual helmet, is also democratized. The long-term ecological impacts (CO2 emissions, helmet recycling, planned obsolescence, etc.) must also be taken into account. If the use of the metaverse spreads, the doctoral student in philosophy Raphaël Bompy, who thinks about the future of technology, imagines various applications for Christians. Regarding the worship aspect, he thinks of the creation of times of prayer, catechesis and the dissemination of digital gospels. And why not blessings, as already offered by Buddhist monks? It also evokes a space for interreligious dialogue or a pilgrimage for people with disabilities. He thus summons “the places where the Church is present today” : associations, Catholic education, conferences, training…

Finally, the metaverse can highlight historical, biblical and sacred art scenes. The 60,000 spectators in six months of “Eternal Notre-Dame” – a masterful 45-minute virtual tour of the cathedral of Paris designed by the company Amaclio in collaboration with the diocese of Paris – know something about it. According to Raphael Bompy, “everything is possible from the moment two people interact”.

“Building a livable world”

Besides, the Vatican is getting into it, too. In May 2022, he announced the launch of a virtual art gallery for “the public all over the world can view the art, manuscripts and other objects held in its collection”.

It will also soon be possible to attend theology courses or listen to the homily of a speaker of our choice. And if the metaverse allowed Christians persecuted in their country, for example in China, to attend mass, without communion of course, but feeling at least part of a community? Not all metaverses are created equal, nor are all of its applications. While some games isolate and stupefy the user, others encourage virtual encounters around common interests, or even the creation of links in the real world.

Christians can therefore put on their virtual reality headset, but under certain conditions. Éric Salobir considers it necessary to work on this subject in good understanding with the decision-makers of these new technologies, associations that work on human rights, governments, regulators and companies: “Everyone has an interest in building a livable world”, assures the councilor of the Holy See. It also insists on increased vigilance regarding three challenges (see box below).

3 points of attention for users

Brother Éric Salobir, president of the executive committee of the Human Technology Foundation, offers three points of attention to future creators and users of metaverses:
– Taking into account the whole human being, that is to say not only the brain, but also the body and the feelings. The metaverse experience should not be isolated from the real world: taking part in a conference or a workshop in the metaverse does not preclude going to church on Sundays.
– Consideration of all human beings, especially those towards whom the Church has a special duty: the poor, minorities…
– A balanced governance, being a faithful steward rather than a bad demiurge who would like to “subdue the earth” for himself.

A Catholic metaverse?

For Christophe Marger, author ofEvangelize on the Internet, instructions for use, the metaverse can be a virtuous space, from the moment it initiates links between users. It will even make it possible to evangelize, as the site of which he is co-founder does today, lights in the dark. Internet users who so wish can chat on the Net with an e-missionary, via written messages in real time, but the objective is indeed their integration into a real ecclesial community. The tool has proven itself, and has notably led people to baptism.

Why shouldn’t what is possible on the Internet, declared a “gift of God” by Pope Francis, be transposed into a metaverse? asks the e-missionary. Of course, there will be wasted time, addictions, harassment, confusion between robots and avatars and, if this place must be like our current world, is it really useful? However, what would become of sinners on the metaverse if no one announced Christ to them? “It would be an inhuman place”, slice Christophe Marger. Far from rejecting this universe under construction, he begins to dream of a Catholic metaverse, whose message would be neither mercantile nor ideological, but based on the word of God. A place of relationships where the Christian would be a listening presence, not just a provider of information. A real presence in a virtual universe.

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Should the Church invest the metaverse?

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