Does the Metaverse Need a Zoning Board?

As new crypto investments flood online worlds, conflicts between virtual neighbors are on the rise.

A screenshot of the parcel 3 Adalbertstraße, currently owned by user FA881A, who hired meta-architect Ogar to design this ranch. Photo: FA881A/ and Ogar/
A screenshot of the parcel 3 Adalbertstraße, currently owned by user FA881A, who hired meta-architect Ogar to design this ranch. Photo: FA881A/ and Ogar/
A screenshot of the parcel 3 Adalbertstraße, currently owned by user FA881A, who hired meta-architect Ogar to design this ranch. Photo: FA881A/ and Ogar/

A futuristic Viking-themed spa hotel. A contemporary office space with a Zen garden on the roof. A monastery — with a chapel and underground catacombs, skulls included — cheek by jowl with an all-American ranch house.

All of these structures were recently constructed in the metaverse, a galaxy of shared virtual spaces like Decentraland, Somnium Space, and Cryptovoxels, accessible through any browser. These worlds have something in common with older virtual spaces, such as Second Life — you get an avatar, you can socialize with other users, you can build a house — with one key difference: They’re fueled by cryptocurrency. Though these platforms are free to enter, users pay with crypto for virtual land as well as for upgraded avatars, wearables, 3-D models, and artworks. In the last few months, as crypto prices have soared and non-fungible tokens have boomed, more people are arriving in the metaverse, ready to buy some land and build some property, sometimes at real-world values.

In the last 30 days, four parcels in Decentraland have sold for the crypto equivalent of more than $200,000 each, and an artist recently sold a predesigned virtual home that can be uploaded to the metaverse for $500,000 worth of crypto. With all the new money flooding the metaverse, these experimental communities are changing. And as the designs that dot them shift from being idealistic fun to potentially lucrative investments, the kinds of conflicts between neighbors we’re familiar with from the real world have followed.

Take the monastery and the ranch house next door. Both were built by Ogar, an in-demand meta-architect in the metaverse. His real name is Alexandre Vlerick, and he lives in the real-life Lille, France, where he previously worked in video-game design and production. But he transitioned a little more than a year ago into working full time in cryptoart and -design, making NFTs and building houses in Cryptovoxels. (Prices vary, but they start at around $1,000 per project.) Right after he finished the monastery for a German client, he got another request: an American client asking for a ranch house alongside it, on land where he could raise virtual chickens, horses, and a goat. Once the client moved in, he got a red barn, a tractor, and bales of hay.

The owner of the monastery wasn’t pleased with the clashing aesthetics, and a familiar homeowners’-association-style conflict erupted. “The first client was like, ‘Man, can’t you do it in another place? I’ll swap parcels with you so you have a bigger space far from my place,’” Ogar said. “But he said no.” So, side by side in the metaverse, they came to coexist. Visitors to Cryptovoxels can virtually wander through the backyard of the American rancher, imagining themselves in Wyoming, and then stumble into a basement full of skulls.

A screenshot of 1 Ratiborstraße, owned by the duo Skulls on Eth, who hired meta-architect Ogar to design this monastery-slash-catacomb. Photo: MAGALL/ and Ogar/

Ogar’s projects are sometimes whimsical, but they’re also impressively detailed, ranging from an ancient-Greek-style temple to a model of the Bronx Zoo. (“Animals are hard to do,” he said.) The variety is partly the result of the near-complete lack of zoning rules in Cryptovoxels: You are confined to the size of the land parcel you’ve purchased, which has height, width, and depth restrictions. But stylistically, users have free rein, which means that there’s little uniformity in style. The virtual world has a speculative, Wild West feel — especially amid the current crypto gold rush, which has investors flush with bitcoin (and other currencies ranging from litecoin to dogecoin). Some are choosing to sink it into opulent metaverse buildings, betting that these will appreciate even more.

Success brings the customary urban and suburban problems: As new stores, art galleries, and homes pop up in the metaverses, land is getting scarcer and more expensive. In some virtual worlds, like Decentraland, there’s a finite amount of land, but Cryptovoxels is popping out new islands periodically that users can bid on. Of course, there are still more and less desirable areas: Parcels on the original continent in Cryptovoxels, called Origin City, are more expensive, as are those in certain neighborhoods where artists tend to congregate, like Le Marais and Gangnam. At the moment, some of the listed parcels available on Cryptovoxels have open bids of the crypto equivalent of between $2,000 and $5,000, while the secondhand market continues to churn out can-you-believe-it sale prices.

The reasons people are flocking to the metaverse vary — and may conflict. Many early users came to the space because they were excited to hang out virtually with like-minded people who believe in blockchain technology; others were digital artists excited about new platforms. “It’s a very funny social experiment, to see the roots of everything, a whole society being built,” Ogar said. “It’s like stepping into a free world.” But for newcomers paying upwards of $100,000 worth of crypto for a parcel, participation in the metaverse might be less about the liberatory potential of blockchain and more about speculating with crypto on digital assets.

There is a clear tension between the idea that the metaverse is a utopian blank canvas, socially and visually, and the fact these spaces are based on money-backed property rights. You can rent out your parcel for more crypto. In Decentraland, there are even mortgages with interest rates. Perhaps in part because of their growing value, people tend to get protective of parcels; Ogar recently built a beach for someone, as part of an NFT gallery-by-the-sea, but a few pixels overflowed into the neighbor’s land. “The next day, my client came back, and the neighbor put up a giant billboard in the middle of the parcel saying basically, ‘Move your beach, you are on my parcel,’” he said.

The value of NFTs have also changed things, as people speculate on digital artworks and then wonder where they can display them. Some of the platforms that sell NFTs have even built their own galleries in the metaverse. “A lot of collectors are very much into VR, so we see a ton of value in it,” said Zack Yanger, of the NFT sales platform SuperRare, which has set up shop in Cryptovoxels and Decentraland with galleries where you can view and purchase NFTs. “If you look at all the biggest collectors, almost all of them are collecting artworks specifically to put into these galleries they’ve built in different worlds.”

There’s new work for Ogar too, who has been busy building galleries and museums in which artists and collectors can house their collections. Some are even looking for pyramids, like the one he built for the Finnish artist Vesa Kivinen, replete with Egyptian-style statues and blue-and-gold designs on the wall that look like hieroglyphics.

Another user, who goes by Benoit C., was already thinking about how to foster an open, communal spirit in Cryptovoxels back in 2018, when he built the Museum of Crypto Art, where he displays artworks from his collection of more than 200 NFTs. So far, it has clocked more than 20,000 virtual visits, mostly in the last few months. Virtually roaming around the Museum of Crypto Art, a cavernous building that Benoit described as “Bauhaus-inspired,” has its own thrills: seeing digital work displayed without any attempts at simulation.

“Art is meant to be seen, not hoarded,” he said. “Currently, there’s this fad, this flow of new artwork that’s flying in and flying out, and you get to see them on the platforms for maybe a day or two before they’re gone, in someone’s wallet.”

Users like Benoit C. have mixed feelings about the recent changes to the metaverse. The NFT rush has helped raise the Museum of Crypto Art’s profile — an IRL brand recently approached him about doing a virtual event there. It’s exciting to watch the community grow. But there is already a kind of nostalgia setting in among longtime users of these platforms (which is to say, those who have been there for three or four years) for the era before prices rose and the larger crypto community started moving into the metaverse. “The big money is moving in,” Benoit C. said. “It’s always the same. At the beginning, there’s a small community, and then newcomers arrive and there are feelings about those newcomers, who are richer and more famous — that they’re kind of changing the space.”

Ogar’s first project, built last year when prices were still low, is still his favorite one: a building that he put up on a parcel given to him by an artist friend. It’s based on a coffee shop he loved in Amsterdam that closed a few years ago. It has a yellow-and-blue façade and redbrick details; inside, there’s a pool table and a Pulp Fiction poster, as well as a smattering of NFTs. People have been bidding on the property lately, making offers of crypto. “They don’t seem to understand that it’s my home, so I’ll never sell,” he said. I made it based on this real place that closed in the real world, and I can’t go there anymore. But I made it nearly identical, so it will exist now in the metaverse.”

Does the Metaverse Need a Zoning Board?