Virtual worlds need real directions

Symbolically associating a colour with a direction may be one of the oldest ideas in the world. Ten thousand years old. That makes the symbolism of direction one of the most deeply embedded ideas across all of human civilization and culture. For the Mayans, and other Native Americans the colour white was associated with north, red was associated with east, black with west, and yellow with south. For the Hopi, north west was yellow, south west was associated with blue/green, red for south east and white for north east. In ancient China, north was associated with the colour black, east with green, south red, and east with white. Similar colours, similar directions, sometimes with different associations, but always an association between a direction and a colour.

Why should these ancient symbolic associations matter to us today? Because the symbolism of direction is very much with us in modern society. In the northern hemisphere at least, north is associated with moving forward, with progression and advancement towards an intended destination or goal. We use the metaphor of the north star as a guide for setting a preferred direction. On computer game controllers, up is forward. Our sense of direction, and the symbolic meaning we associate with them gets embodied into our technologies and the virtual and conceptual worlds they create.

As talk of creating metaverses and virtual reality environments increases, we would do well to consider how physical direction gets represented in these spaces. Does it help to orientate, or disorientate us? Will these immersive online worlds lack the symbolism we’ve relied on for so long? And what might that do to our sense of the real world?