Virtual Real Estate Makes a Weird Debut

Down through the ages, land ownership has been synonymous with permanence, stability, and substance. Buying a piece of property also carried a measure of “belonging” since owners are automatically deemed to be members of the community (their tax bills prove that)!

The feeling of substantiality that goes with owning a parcel of land is part of its appeal—hence, the real that is part of our expression for land and buildings: “real estate.” Land ownership is about as real as anything can get, all right—except that now, that may be another thing that’s changing. The exception that has emerged is a kind of real estate that’s the opposite of real. It’s virtual.

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The New York Times recently explored the phenomenon in an article titled “The Curious World of NFT Real Estate and Design.” To appreciate what could be called “unreal real estate,” just realize that in 2021, one company—Superworld—has sold thousands of virtual properties, racking up average sales of around $2,000 each.

Superworld’s not-so-real estate offerings consist of 64 billion equal-sized plots that correspond to the surface of the actual Earth. Virtual visitors to its augmented reality globe can use their computer screens to roam the planet to visit and buy these “properties.” The Times reports that the first buyer to claim it could own “virtual land encompassing the Eiffel Tower…or prime commercial property in Lower Manhattan.” On the Superworld site, users “can buy and sell virtual real estate on the platform.” For the price-conscious, Superworld globe-trotters will find that prices are, at this early juncture, available at bargain prices—at least compared with corresponding parcels on the real Earth.

If this all seems completely unreal, there are real-world examples that demonstrate the opposite. You can investigate the “metaverse” and the world of “NFTs” (NonFungible Tokens) to find examples. This year, for instance, virtual artwork by Beeple (Mike Winkelman) sold for $3.5 million at an online auction held by Christie’s. With plots of unowned property in SuperWorld “listed” at 0.1 ETH (one-tenth of an Etherium bitcoin, currently worth about $170), the fact “that it doesn’t really exist” (the Times’ description) doesn’t seem to faze some buyers.