Discover more from Disruptor
Masters of Disruption: How the Gamer Generation Built the Future 
Part two of my conversation with Rec Room CEO and co-founder Nick Fajt.
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!
This is part two of my interview with Nick Fajt of Rec Room. For part one, click here.
David Kushner: John Carmack, co-founder of id Software, has spoken about virtual reality being a moral imperative. Then Palmer Luckey kind of took that idea to heart himself and created Oculus. For you on a deeper level, why create a metaverse?
Nick Fajt: I don't know that the problem that we've been solving is why create a metaverse? I think the problem that we're solving is probably a little bit more human problem: people generally don't feel very connected to other people. I think most of the social software that we've created today has exacerbated that problem rather than made it better. When you spend two hours scrolling through Instagram, you're not interacting with another person. You're interacting with an algorithm. If you spend two hours on Instagram, you generally would not retroactively look at that time and say, "Wow, that was time really well-spent. I'm so glad that I did that.”
“Metaverse isn’t a term we use internally very often. We think of Rec Room as a social world.”
But if instead you took those two hours and you met up with a friend from college and grabbed a pizza together, you wouldn't be like, "Well, that was time wasted." So why do we feel like the time we're spending on social software is time wasted, but time spent socializing is not? It's because social software isn't social. You're not socializing. I think our brains know that at its core. I think our brains need socializing. If you look at how we torture people in this country, that's how we do it. You're isolated. You can't go and chat with other people. We're going to put you in a room by yourself. I think we've accidentally done that to ourselves at scale.
Our theory with Rec Room was: what if there was a world where you could have an unlimited set of realtime interactions with other people, but it still felt safe, and it still felt welcoming, and it was fun? What would that look like? How could we build that? I think that was more the language that we use at Rec Room. I would say the metaverse has become a buzzword lately. Often times I end up describing Rec Room in terms of a metaverse, but it's not a term that we use internally very often. We think of it as, "Hey, this is a social world. What if I could just hang out with you as though we were in the same room? What would that look like?"
David Kushner: How did the pandemic affect the growth of Rec Room?
Nick Fajt: I think it's probably done two things. One is very numerical, and then I think one is more cultural. Numerically, the number of people interacting with Rec Room and the amount of time they spend, the frequency with which they log in, it's all gone up quite a bit. I think with people trapped in their homes, they're looking for ways to socialize with other humans that is safe. They're looking for ways to entertain themselves that is safe. I think the virtual world affords a lot of these same experiences you might get in the physical world, but it's pandemic-free.
I think the cultural thing that has shifted is the number of people that view video games as more than games has dramatically increased. I guess the clearest analogy I could give you would be that 10 or 15 years ago it would be a weird thing to say that you met your spouse online. That would be like, "What weirdos are doing this?" But if you look today in the US, more than 50% of significant others are found through some dating app. So it's very common now. I think we're at a very similar verge with video games where video games are a physical place that I can go and hang out with my friends, the same way that the park is or a restaurant is or going to somebody's house is. Going into a video game and hanging out with somebody has reached a cultural inflection point of, "Oh yeah, that's totally a thing that normal people do.”
David Kushner: Rec Room relies on people creating content, but how do you inspire to do that when they’re reluctant? Or is that just going to happen with time as the gamer generation ages?
Nick Fajt: When you look at Rec Room, there’s a really broad group that's creating, and the reasons that they're creating are really broad. Some people are like, “I've got this game idea, and I want it to be the most popular room in Rec Room, and this is my job. I'm going to do this as a money-making mechanism.” But there's a bunch of other people that are probably more in the camp of “I want to create a beach house for me and my friends to hang out in, and I'm never going to publish it, and no one outside of these 15 people are ever going to see it. But it's our space. Rather than building at tree house in somebody's backyard or a fort in the woods, I'm going to go build it in this digital space.” I think there's a lot of that. Then I think there's a lot of people that probably just build for themselves, and it's not really meant for any eyes. It's just a means of expressing their creativity. There's not one path to creation success in Rec Room. It's really about what do you want to do, and can you do it?
David Kushner: What are some examples of user-generated content that have surprised you or impressed you?
Nick Fajt: I would say there's a lot of narrative of walking adventures. So it's almost like a movie that you're inside of. So you'll go from place to place, and some story unfolds. Calling it a game is probably not the right term. It's more of an experience. We've seen people use Rec Room for family reunions. We've seen it for therapy sessions. We've seen classrooms. We've seen people have their actual weddings in Rec Room. All of the events have probably been surprising on some level.
Over this past weekend, we put on a conference in Rec Room called Rec Con. So it was like a conference center. Several hundred people put together an expo with different expo booths that you can go check out There were hundreds of panels and Q&As. It was like a real conference. I think there was 350,000 visits to the space. It felt like a CDC or a PAX. That wasn't what we originally built the platform for. We were very excited to see it happen though.
David Kushner: How do you handle moderating the content and trolling?
Nick Fajt: The way we’ve looked at trust and safety in Rec Room is we want Rec Room to be a fun and welcoming space. We came in pretty hard with a code of conduct early. I think a lot of the behavior that you see out of people, it's informed by the physical space that they're in. So if you go to a bar, it's dark, it's loud. It implies a certain set of behaviors are acceptable. If you go into a church, it's quiet. It's expansive and a different set of behaviors is acceptable. We do a lot with the design and the color palette and the music and the suggestions of Rec Room for like, "Hey, these are the behaviors that we want and these are the behaviors we don’t." One of the things that I think we have learned from other platforms is that Rec Room is not an open platform. We are not an open platform for anyone to express any idea. We are much more opinionated about what kind of behavior we want on the platform and what kind of content is allowed. Racist, sexist activity is not allowed on Rec Room. There's just no place for it.
The other thing that I would say that we've learned is if you don't handle this problem early, it metastasizes over time. These communities are built like a crystal. Whatever the original formation is, it will just kind of grow from there. So if you let it get out of control early, there's no getting it back. That's why I think we're so intentional about it now, even though the scale of a Twitter might not be there. I think the battles are really fought now, not when you're at Twitter's scale. I think if you're trying to fight it then, you might be too late.