While Decentraland is one of the most popular blockchain-based virtual worlds, it is far from the only one of its kind: Somnium Space, SuperWorld, and Sandbox are all variations on the same theme. Some have offered built-in rental features for years.
One virtual landlord, Chris Bell, who owns one of the largest land portfolios at Somnium Space, says he made $18,000 in rent in 2021. an estate empire with 100 lots. The same set of golden rules—buy in the right place, invest in property improvements, and set the right rent—apply across the virtual and physical realms, Bell says.
Sam Huber, CEO of LandVault, says the real money comes from combining land leases with value-added services such as virtual property design and development. His company, which aims to offer tenants a simple end-to-end service, is currently able to recoup the cost of buying a plot in as little as two months.
Even though virtual property rental is an extremely narrow niche, an entire industry has already been created around this concept. There are not only virtual landlords, but also property managers and real estate agents who help them, and developers who help design and build the buildings they want to rent out. There are even investment firms that specialize exclusively in virtual property.
The idea that someone can pay to temporarily occupy a virtual piece of land is curious in itself, but even more interesting is what it says about the trajectory of these blockchain-based virtual worlds and the social dynamics that form within them.
According to Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life, this mechanism implies the formation of a new “winner takes all” class system. At the top of the social pyramid sit the noble landowners, and below them are the professionals and tenants, the latter, because of the price, cannot climb the corporate ladder themselves.
The development of complex industries can be seen as a sign of the growing maturity of virtual communities. But it can also be a sign of illness, says Rosedale, whose own 3D online world pioneered the concept of virtual real estate in the early 2000s.
“The accumulation of wealth in the virtual economy is a major concern,” says Rosedale. Since there is no fixed cost of ownership for virtual landowners, there will be an “inexorable” and “destructive” consolidation of wealth in the hands of a minority, he said.
Similar theories are advanced by Roger Burroughs, a sociologist and professor of digital culture and social inequality at the University of Bristol, and Vassilis Galanos, a lecturer in sociology at the University of Edinburgh.
According to Burroughs, the evolution of virtual real estate is “deeply political.” He sees virtual worlds as places where people come to hide among others who share their political beliefs. In this case, the so-called cryptonatives have built a world that they rule as owners of the land, built around the same suspicion of government and public institutions on which the crypto movement was based. Formally, everyone is allowed in, but only as tenants.