Forza Horizon 5 Is Gaming’s Gateway Drug to Dystopia

Millions of players agree that Microsoft’s Forza Horizon 5 is a beautiful, fun, and endlessly seductive video game. It’s also an eerie transitional technology that hints at the dystopian metaverse to come.

Still from Forza Horizon 5. (Xbox Game Studios)

It’s a tranquil morning on the coast of a superrealistic version of Mexico’s Riviera Maya in Forza Horizon 5 — or it would be if not for my lipstick red Lamborghini blazing an illicit path through the beach.

The whine of the car’s high-octane engine drowns out the sound of ocean waves lapping against the shore, and its tires kick white sand everywhere. Not that anyone seems to mind. The beachside cafes and resort hotels are all curiously empty except for a man in a tank top perched on a lifeguard tower. He doesn’t even flinch as the vehicle careens toward him like a bullet at a hundred miles per hour.

The feeling is mutual. I’m laser-focused on the thousands of points the game announces that I’ve just been awarded for skidding my golden Lambo back-and-forth along the beach — it’s a “Supreme Drift,” I’m told. Then I immediately speed into a lounge chair and gain a thousand destruction points, which can be used to earn prizes. Who knows, maybe I’ll finally win that expensive new Aston Martin supercar so I can outpace my online friends. It’s impossible to feel bored. I’ve clocked four straight hours but it’s felt like minutes.

Am I trapped in the metaverse? Not quite yet, but the newest in Microsoft’s acclaimed racing series contains the outline of one. Forza 5 represents a transitional technology. It’s built on the foundation of video gaming’s past while also working as a self-contained metaverse that hints at — or warns of — what’s ahead.

Upgrading to the Metaverse

Mark Zuckerberg’s recent announcement of Facebook’s Meta brand makeover and accompanying hour-long infomercial for the metaverse invited plenty of incredulity and mockery. Users of Web 2.0 are largely unconvinced of the coming of so-called Web 3.0.

Yet like the artist formerly known as Facebook, Microsoft is quietly hard at work building out its own corner of the metaverse, with gaming promised to be a key part of it. In the meantime, the tech titan celebrated Xbox’s twentieth birthday by granting subscribers of its Game Pass — essentially Netflix for video games — instant access to Forza Horizon 5. It’s been wildly popular so far, with 10 million players since it was released earlier this month. Microsoft is trumping it as the biggest launch of any game in the game console’s two-decade history.

It’s easy to see why. From the moment the game opens with a Ford Bronco brazenly parachuting out of the back of an airplane so that you can traverse an active volcano, it’s hard not to fall in love with driving fast cars in seductively beautiful vistas with endless things to do. The map of Mexico quickly becomes dotted with flashing icons beckoning you to compete in various on- and off-road races, to locate vintage autos hidden away in barns, or compete with friends or strangers in mini-games, like collectively hitting thirty thousand miles an hour on a highway speed trap. Some activities are barely concealed commercials for real cars, like a Jeep-sponsored off-roading competition in which you can only use the new model of Jeep’s absurdly large SUV, the Gladiator, to traverse Forza’s version of Jurassic Park.

Arguably, everything here is a commercial in one way or another. The beating heart of Forza 5 is a hyper-capitalistic car-based economy that demands both your attention and money. There is a wisp of a story but no true endgame except bragging rights and accumulation. The number of things to collect is endless: various currencies like credits, kudos, and Forzathon points, more than five hundred models of true-to-life vehicles, and dozens of houses. The point of a virtual real estate empire, of course, is to hold your car collection. And if you’re in a hurry to acquire stuff, you can buy your way to success with real dollars that can purchase bundles of new autos, which can be flipped on Forza’s live auction block.

Competition is the name of the game in racing, but Forza 5 insists that you feel like a winner at every moment, even if you’re reaching checkered flags last. That’s why everything you do as a driver — every turn, drift, and tap of a button — is measured, analyzed, and gamified, and turned into rewards that feel like microdoses of dopamine. Cruise in a straight line long enough without wrecking, for instance, and you get enough points to earn a Forza Wheelspin, which is essentially a slot machine that doles out free cars or hundreds of thousands of credits.

It’s insidious, yes, but Forza 5 is designed so that you’ll be too busy staring at the gorgeous scenery or engrossed in the moment-to-moment adrenaline-rush style of racing to notice. You have to look closely to find the elaborate Skinner box rumbling under the hood. Ironically, it’s not unlike the real-life Riviera Maya. In 1968, the Mexico government wanted to build a new city from scratch, so it hired experts and used computer models to help select a nine-mile strip of land, a tiny fishing village off the coast of Quintana Roo, as the site. The resort city it built is now called Cancún, and it’s become a premiere playground for rich international tourists. In other words, a tourist trap.

If a video game version of Cancún sounds concerning, consider the possibility of a metaverse upgrade. Microsoft could potentially tweak the economy by joining it to the connective tissue of the blockchain so that players could sell each other souped-up Ferraris, custom paint jobs, and beachside estates using cryptocurrency, with Bill Gates’s bros taking a cut via transaction fees. Forza Metaverse could also sell limited edition cars as NFTs, that unlike most non-fungible tokens sold now, aren’t just pieces of art to be admired online, but driven around virtual racetracks.

Believe it or not, this scenario is already playing out in a new metaverse prototype called Wilder World. Already, Web 3.0 users are buying WILD cryptocurrency (currently worth about $6) and buying car NFTs to be driven in Wiami — a 1-to-1 geographical replica of Miami set in a nearby alternative dimension.

What would the prospect of a bigger, shinier version of Wilder World with the oomph of Microsoft behind it mean for gamers’ attention and wallets? It may not be long until we find out.