Lost in Roblox’s Fifa World – everything wrong with the metaverse in one place | Games

Almost every December all around the UK, temporary winter wonderland theme parks crop up, usually in out-of-town car parks or disused industrial sites. They promise hours of seasonal fun with Santa’s grottos and magic sleigh rides – but what disappointed families often get is Santa’s static caravan covered in tinsel and two emaciated donkeys dressed in plastic antlers dragging a wheelbarrow. Imagine that, but online and with a bit more cash behind it, and you have Fifa World.

Announced via a typically histrionic press release, Fifa World is a “virtual environment that celebrates the power of football and the rich history of its pinnacle events”. Built into the hugely successful online multiplayer game Roblox, which allows its 55 million daily users to create their own interactive areas (but which has also attracted huge controversy for its business model of monetising childhood creativity), it’s a sort of virtual football-themed fete with a nine-hole football crazy golf course, where you kick a football through various obstacles into a goal, and a football bowling challenge, where you kick a football at some skittles. Other than that, there’s a mini football pitch with a giant ball, so you can engage in impromptu kickabouts with other inmates, sorry, visitors.

‘An exciting new online immersive experience for all football fans’ – as long as they enjoy crazy golf.
‘An exciting new online immersive experience for all football fans’ – as long as they enjoy crazy golf. Photograph: Fifa/Roblox

Playing these games earns coins that can be spent on various stickers and character customisations at a group of little shops in the “social hub”, which is a big tent. I spent 250 coins on a pack of random stickers and received, among other treasures, the official ball of the 1978 World Cup and also the country of Ecuador. I then purchased a special effect that makes bubbles come out of my avatar when I run. Naturally, there’s also a facility where children can buy coins with the Robux virtual currency, because why not? Why not just try to eke some extra revenue out, while they’re there?

The “social hub” is also where friends can “hang out” watching very short snippets of football videos on a large screen. In the corner, there’s a booth where you can take a virtual photo of yourself with a virtual Jules Rimet trophy. That’s Jules Rimet, the devout Catholic who disliked the commercialisation of football. I’m sure he’d be first in the queue at the Visa-sponsored sticker shop.

Within half an hour I’d exhausted the “experience” and felt no desire to return. I’m trying to imagine who would. Maybe if your child has a lot of friends in Roblox, and passions for football and heavily corporatised virtual environments, they will have fun. According to the Fifa World icon in Roblox, 83% of attendees have given it a thumbs up. I am glad for them – although research is beginning to show that kids are tiring of highly branded virtual spaces cropping up in their games.

Fifa World
Fifa World Photograph: Fifa/Roblox

To me, this is the perfect example of what the metaverse concept is likely to become: a way for tech giants to gently pilfer the marketing budgets of mega-corporations keen to exploit their customers. Naturally, it’ll never be phrased that way. In Fifa’s press release, chief business officer Romy Gai stated, “Fifa’s immersive experience on Roblox will provide football fans with a hugely exciting new way to interact with friends, celebrate the rich culture and heritage around the world’s biggest sports competition, and demonstrate their creativity and national pride through various features and mechanics.”

I didn’t feel I was celebrating anything as I attempted to kick a football through the spokes of a giant wooden wheel. I felt no connection to the sport as I navigated a short platforming challenge in the clouds above the golf course, attempting to collect two more coins in order to perhaps secure a sticker of South Korea. Naturally, star footballers will be handsomely paid to have their likenesses appear in the game, to give the place some semblance of authenticity. I’ve no doubt that famous Roblox streamers and YouTubers will have their bank balances immeasurably enriched by “creating awesome content” in this dystopian hyper-capitalist holiday park. The manipulation of parasocial relationships will be another kickass feature of the metaverse, you can count on that.

‘Fifa believes that such a multi-layered experience will result in a truly inclusive and fun gameplay.’ It’s bowling, but with a football.
‘Fifa believes that such a multi-layered experience will result in a truly inclusive and fun gameplay.’ It’s bowling, but with a football. Photograph: Fifa/Roblox

When the lucrative licensing deal between Electronic Arts and Fifa flew apart earlier this year, Fifa president Gianni Infantino promised that the organisation would now work with multiple partners to create “the best” interactive football content. Apparently, a new Fifa footie sim is coming in 2024, though who will develop it and how they will compete with EA’s decades of experience and thousands of hours of physics modelling, AI coding and art asset creation was a puzzle before I saw Roblox’s Fifa World. Now it seems like an utterly ludicrous fantasy.

This morning I decided to take one last walk around the periphery of the colourful map to see if there was anything I had missed. The game crashed and wouldn’t let me back in. Perhaps Fifa does have a heart after all.

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