Gaming companies are best placed to build the Disneylands of the metaverse

February 17, 2022, 4:24 PM UTC
Gaming companies have figured out how to bring online the same excitement and togetherness Disney offers its visitors in the physical world.
STR/AFP/Getty Images

For as long as humans have existed, we have been social creatures. We deeply value joyful togetherness.

“Social networking” as we know it has run out of steam. Meanwhile, media companies are competing for a shrinking streaming pie and ignoring the bigger market of delivering active social experiences.

Gaming companies more consistently deliver joyful togetherness to their core users and are teaching younger audiences to experience media in new ways.

As social, games, and media converge, the race to build the Disneylands of the metaverse is on.

Social networking is not Facebook

In Facebook’s world, social networking means accidentally liking your middle school boyfriend’s wedding photo. It means commenting on a QAnon post your uncle shared and celebrating when your efforts to #FreeBritney paid off. This assumed definition drives much of the discussion about the benefits and ills of social networking, including Jaron Lanier’s excellent critique that because of social networks’ design, they inevitably lead to pools of negativity and outrage.

Social networking precedes Facebook in the same way that dating precedes Tinder. Humans have always gathered in groups, big and small. Niall Ferguson writes about social networks as economic forces that determine what we eat: the Freemasons, Roman dynasties, the Founding Fathers, and, most important, the town square. All of these precede electricity, not to mention computers, the internet, and Facebook.

A better definition of social networks would be: where humans create relationships, maintain those relationships, and do things together. Ecosystems that do not primarily define themselves as “social networks” are often better at social networking than “social networks.” They help humans create, maintain, and actualize relationships.

These now include “gaming” ecosystems like Xbox Game Pass, Roblox, and Fortnite, “messaging” apps like Snapchat and Telegram, neighborhood networks like Ring and Nextdoor, dating apps like Tinder and Grindr, and even repurposed business tools like Google Docs and Zoom.

We need joyful togetherness

What matters most to humans (as it always has) are social experiences with fellow humans that bring positivity and joy. Think about memories that put a smile on your face. I bet they include dinner parties, travel, a romantic date, perhaps a trip to Disneyland. What is the virtual world’s equivalent?

Compare the time spent inside Roblox to time scrolling Instagram. My 8-year-old FaceTimes her friends, and they journey to Bloxburg together. They help each other build houses and create little worlds. Because I am not willing to buy her infinite Robux, she has in-person coding playdates with a friend to launch their own Roblox game and generate some much-needed in-app income.

Hard-core gaming has included its share of misogyny and abuse, but Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski has had dozens of couples approach him over the years telling him they met in his game and are now raising children together. Women now make up more than 40% of video gamers and the majority of mobile gamers. More recently, Xbox’s Game Pass has created an environment for people to navigate together from game to game. In the same way that Disneyland has proposals and weddings, according to Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer, so does Xbox.

The reality is that not everyone’s human world can feel like enough. We don’t all have loving families and close friends who live nearby. Even if we do, sometimes it’s okay to want to escape to another world, whether it’s kinder, funnier, or full of more thrills.

Historically, every major era of mainstream content has been creatively defined by thirtysomething creators who pushed each other and the established ecosystem toward what most interested them. Tomorrow’s thirtysomethings will have created TikToks before they entered high school. Are they currently watching Ozark or Atlanta or Fleabag? Maybe. Almost surely, they are spending more time on YouTube, TikTok, and Fortnite. They value the sense of community and belonging that those platforms provide. Watching a Billie Eilish video in Fortnite feels like a native experience inside a virtual theme park where you are already spending quality time with your friends. It is what these future creators expect and what will inform how they express themselves in the future.

If humans are spending more time playing games, if games are inclusive of more types of humans, and if humans desire varied experiences inside games, shouldn’t companies that define themselves by the intellectual property they develop and control invest resources in just that?

Building the Disneylands of the future

Media companies have never been good at making games, so they play to their strengths by licensing instead of operating in-house divisions. This is similar to media executives’ perspective in the 2010s that they should be selling their most successful shows to the highest bidder, resulting in Netflix’s unfettered growth over the past decade and their collective stalemate. To paraphrase Ted Sarandos, media companies helped Netflix become HBO faster than HBO could become Netflix.

Neither Netflix nor Disney is on track to build world-class virtual Disneylands of the future. While Netflix has started a gaming division and produced a few choose-your-own-adventure style one-offs like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, it has not invested in direct-to-consumer technology to create the immersive experiences young viewers look for. Building games for third-party platforms makes it yet another game publisher.

Disney has sold off its gaming division. In a recent interview, former CEO Bob Iger spoke about gaming being outside media companies’ core capabilities. Within the past week, Disney appointed a “next-generation storytelling” executive to explore the category, a cautious early step. For now, they are treating it the way they treated Netflix before 2015—as a third party that pays them license fees.

This is a mistake.

Tomorrow’s Disneyland is virtual. It doesn’t require physical real estate, but it must foster human togetherness and offer varied experiences for people to do together, including not just games, but also co-viewing, product “drops,” and just good old hanging out.

Arguably, Xbox and its peers are building Disneyland faster than Disney can build Xbox. They are already good at nurturing togetherness—and they are making it more joyful by attracting diverse users, launching more community tools, and investing in security and moderation.

Then again, it’s hard for behemoths to be nimble. Gaming companies are still primarily focused on games. Media companies are focused on beating Netflix. Netflix is focused on making more shows. The future will likely be defined by a new company with a maniacal focus on human togetherness and user joy as primary deliverables.

Alex Kruglov is the cofounder and CEO of, a mobile app that brings people together through gameplay. Prior to, he was head of content acquisition at Hulu, where he was part of its founding team.

More must-read commentary published by Fortune:

Fortune’s upcoming Brainstorm Design conference is going to dive into how businesses are building experiences in the metaverse. Apply to attend the event on May 23-24 in New York.

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