Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future [5]

For visionary sci-fi authors William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, the future of our virtual lives starts with games.

This post is part of a longform project I’m serializing exclusively in my newsletter, Disruptor. It’s a follow-up to my first book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Built an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, and it’s called Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future. To follow along, please subscribe to Disruptor and spread the word. Thanks!

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One day in the early 1980s, William Gibson was walking down Granville Street in his hometown of Vancouver, past the diners and newsstands, when one of the shops grabbed his attention: a videogame arcade. What he saw in there would inspire one of the most influential concepts in the history of science fiction, one that would inspire generations of writers, filmmakers, and technologists.

In my previous posts of Masters of Disruption, I’ve written about how leading gamers envision the future of our lives in the dawning virtual world of the metaverse. 

For Gibson, it started that day in Canada, during the golden age of arcades, when kids blew their lawn mowing money on Pac-Man, Defender, Donkey Kong, and other classic hits. Gibson, an aspiring science-fiction writer at the time, wasn’t much of a gamer beyond having some rudimentary skills at Pong. The man who’d go on to become one of the world’s most influential novelists had barely even touched a personal computer.

“I had scarcely even seen one,” he told me one morning over coffee in New York City. It was 2014, shortly after the publication of his book, The Peripheral, and I was interviewing him for Rolling Stone. He was lanky and rumpled, with round, frameless glasses, and spoke with a southern accent, having grown up in Virginia.

“I had seen one Sinclair ZX80 attached to an old television set,” he went on, “People didn’t have them. Personal computers were not common objects at all. I had been writing short fiction on the kind of manual portable that hipsters are starting to pay really good money for now. I had inherited a really good Swiss manual portable from 1927 that was just like a great little machine.” And what he had seen of people at their computers failed to ignite his imagination. “The most exciting thing they could have been doing would have been, like, emailing people somewhere,” he said.

Inside the Vancouver arcade, he was struck by the sight of young people twitching and gawking and pounding buttons. They were totally engaged with this simulated world on the other side of the scratched and smudged arcade game glass.


“A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.”

“It was their body language,” he told me, “this physical manifestation of some kind of intense yearning. And it seemed to me that had they been able to, they would have reached through the screen — like, reached through the glass — and directly manipulated the pixels to get the result they wanted.”

In his 1982 short story, Burning Chrome, published in Omni magazine, Gibson coined the word “cyberspace” to describe this world behind the screen, a Wonderland for the nascent gamer generation.

Gibson writes that it is “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts...A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.”

Three years later, in 1985, he canonized his portrayal of outlaws and hackers fighting artificial intelligence inside of a virtual realm in his seminal novel, Neuromancer.


“Hiro’s not actually here at all. He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse.”

Seven years after Neuromancer, author Neal Stephenson imagined his own version of the pixelated Wonderland in his book, Snow Crash. He describes the novel’s main character, Hiro Protagonist, as existing beyond the physical world. “Hiro’s not actually here at all,” he writes, “He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse.”

Like Gibson, Stephenson credits videogames with powering the early building blocks of the metaverse. This happened, as he told Forbes in 2011, with the proliferation of 3D graphics hardware.Seven years after Neuromancer, author Neal Stephenson imagined his own version of the pixelated Wonderland in his book, Snow Crash.

He describes the novel’s main character, Hiro Protagonist, as existing beyond the physical world. “Hiro’s not actually here at all,” he writes, “He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse.”

Like Gibson, Stephenson credits videogames with powering the early building blocks of the metaverse. This happened, as he told Forbes in 2011, with the proliferation of 3D graphics hardware.

“What I didn't anticipate, what actually came along to drive down the cost of 3D graphics hardware, was games,” he said, “And so the virtual reality that we all talked about and that we all imagined 20 years ago didn't happen in the way that we predicted. It happened instead in the form of videogames. And so what we have now is Warcraft guilds, instead of people going to bars on the street in Snow Crash.”

Today, as Silicon Valley races to finally bring the metaverse to life, there’s a divide over the best path to pursue. Mark Zuckerberg has described Facebook’s goal of creating a metaverse that is, as he put it to The Verge, the "holy grail of social interactions.”

But as John Carmack, the co-creator of Doom and Quake, and consulting CTO of Oculus, told me, he believes that “Minecraft and Fortnite are closer to the metaverse than anything Facebook has built, or frankly, is likely to build.”

Stephenson ultimately came around to this point of view as well. “It's just inherently more interesting to enter into an art directed alternate world,” he said, “where you can go on adventures and get into fights and engage with the world that way, than it is to enter a world where all you can do is kind of stand around and chat.”


This post is part of a longform project I’m serializing exclusively in my newsletter, Disruptor. It’s a follow-up to my first book, Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Built an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, and it’s called Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future. To follow along, please subscribe to Disruptor and spread the word. Thanks!

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