Improving the lives of players in the metaverse
Virtual Society. My name immediately tells you what I’m about. I am a video game that lets you create virtual worlds which you can either explore on your own, with friends or with anyone else who has a taste for adventure. “It's ‘a social sandbox’, in that it's the players who create the contents of the game”, explains Nicolas Gauville, one of my co-designers alongside Jimmy Etienne, both of whom have PhDs in computer science. “Players can create characters, buildings, dialogues and even quests, which they can either develop themselves or with other players.” What I’m mostly about is having fun. You might think this goes without saying for a video game, but it's a crucial aspect given the recent increase in the popularity of similar metaverses. “Most metaverses are moving further and further away from the entertainment aspect of video gaming, becoming marketplaces where everything is for sale and adverts are everywhere.” I’m totally different. My universes might be virtual, but the values I promote are very much real. The aim is to develop creativity and to promote positive and friendly social interactions. As Nicolas explains, “the goal is to help to improve people’s lives through play.”
Dialogue and inclusivity: my two core values
My development began at an unusual time, with the restrictions introduced to address the COVID-19 epidemic limiting social interaction and leading to people spending a lot of time on their own. “When we were studying for our PhDs we used to play board games with other students during our lunch breaks. Lockdown put an end to that, and so I came up with the idea of going back to a video game that I'd been working on for the best part of eight years during my free time, which I’d never intended to release. I wanted to come up with another fun way of staying in touch with people, mainly with my friends but also with anyone else who might want to.” The game was a success, and so Nicolas and Jimmy decided to develop me further by drawing on feedback from more and more players - close to a thousand of them! I am the result of that process. “Shortly before our thesis defences, we joined Inria Startup Studio in the hopes of setting up a studio for creating video games, beginning with Virtual Society, and then followed by others developed around the same ethical principles.” If I had to sum up these principles in two words, they would be: dialogue and inclusivity.
When I tested Virtual Society for my YouTube channel, I was really struck by its creativity and its inclusivity, particularly with regard to the LGBTQIA+ community. Through a combination of its design, mini-games within a metaverse and its different role play options, it offers all sorts of possibilities depending on how you want to play.
Learning while having fun in the metaverse
“Studies have shown that video games can help to break the vicious cycle of loneliness by rebuilding social connections. When all of the interactions within the spaces of a game are friendly, as is the case with Virtual Society, players are encouraged to translate these experiences into the real world.” Instead of using virtual to escape reality, this is about using virtual to take back possession of reality and to enrich it. That’s the educational purpose for which I was designed. If there’s one thing that Nicolas and Jimmy are certain about, it's that learning is always easier when you're having fun.”
“As for inclusivity, this is applied on two levels: on the types of characters that I can be used to create, without any preconceptions in terms of body type or gender, representing a whole host of specificities (including physical disabilities and the use of sign language); and in terms of my accessibility. “The game is designed to ensure that people with physical, visual or other disabilities are able to get the most out of it. One example of this is the way in which the colours and fonts have been adapted for people with dyschromatopsia, which is more commonly known as colour blindness when it’s congenital.”
Although I’m still some way off reaching full maturity, I have a good idea what the future holds for me: “Our aim is to produce an initial viable prototype by the end of this year, before recruiting new collaborators in order to develop the design and marketing side of things over the next couple of years.”
“We knew how to develop video games, but not a company.”
After a preparatory course for engineering school and a Master’s in artificial intelligence at the University of Lorraine, Nicolas Gauville completed his PhD on autonomous robotics with Safran Electronics & Defense at Inria. Jimmy Etienne, who was on the same Master’s course, studied for a PhD in curved 3D printing with Loria. By the time they came together to start designing Virtual Society, both of them had a great deal of experience in creating video games, something they had been doing since secondary school. Nicolas has even written courses on the subject for a training center, while Jimmy was a contributor to a book on creating video games using Blender, an open-source 3D modelling tool.
When they announced that they planned to set up a video game studio, their PhD supervisors immediately pointed them in the direction of Inria Startup Studio, where they found the material and human support they needed to develop their project. “Aside from hosting, we were given the funding to pay two people's wages for one year. Another really important aspect is the relationships we’ve formed with the research teams at Inria, and the capacity to form part of an established network. Through Inria's communications department we also had the opportunity to take part in a trade fair on video games back in February at the Féru des Sciences.” Nicolas and Etienne are also now receiving support from the Incubateur Lorrain and the Pôle Entrepreneuriat Étudiant de Lorraine (PEEL). All of this support has proved essential - as Nicolas and Etienne admitted, “we knew how to invent and develop video games, but not a company.” Now they do.
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