VRChat
Escape the real world and enter a fun virtual reality. (Illustration by Maya Vargas, Scripps College)
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VRChat

Users are able to enter a virtual reality where their social awkwardness is not only accepted, but embraced.

Within the first 15 minutes of booting up the game, I found myself in a bar serving virtual hooch to a desperately alcoholic Kermit the Frog. This is perhaps the only real way to introduce VRChat to the uninitiated — an online experience so unapologetically weird that a more mundane contextualization would be inauthentic to the game and its users.

It’s a virtual forum dictated by memes, nerd-culture and an underlying sense of shared social awkwardness, but for many of its users, it’s an invaluable place for self-help and free speech.

In 2014, developers Graham Gaylor and Jesse Joudrey created VRChat as an experiment. Although it is sold and marketed as a game, it is first and foremost a virtual forum. VRChat is a meeting place where users are encouraged to adopt a stunning variety of community-created avatars in order to interact with other users anonymously. Unlike the more pervasive message board style of forums, VRChat’s use of 3D models in a virtualized space makes interacting with others feel more personal.

Unlike the impersonal, almost inhuman, method of written communication popularized by standard social media, this real time mimicry of non-verbal human expressions creates an oddly intimate social experience — sometimes to the point of uneasiness.

Just like in real life, when users have a virtual space to roam around, it leads to dead air, fleeting meetings, missed connections and that soul-crushing phenomenon of being edged out of a circle. They are left to awkwardly skulk around the room, desperately looking for an “in” in the crowded conversation.

These uncomfortable moments only serve as proof of investment in VRChat’s world and community, and, paradoxically, it might be why so many self-described introverts flock to it. In my time with the game, I asked many random users their reasons for getting invested in the experience.

The common sentiment was that it was therapeutic — a safe-space for those who felt isolated, inept or otherwise not confident enough to practice their communication skills without feeling weighed down by real-world social consequences.

The anonymous nature of VRChat means that you can completely reinvent yourself just by changing a username and avatar. There are no feelings of lingering regret or embarrassment for making a social faux pas.

Despite the crazy avatars and oddities, there is a genuineness to VRChat that isn’t seen in other platforms. Most users are more than happy to reveal their life-stories, traumas, anxieties and struggles at the drop of a hat, and you can find entire YouTube channels dedicated to heartwarming and heart-wrenching conversations with strangers. There is a strong desire among the fan base to build personal connections, which VRChat encourages through its robust friends system.

Most importantly, the game is novel. The fact that the VRChat developers made the game free and open-sourced means there is no entry barrier. Anyone with a bit of coding and modeling experience can hop in and create their own worlds, avatars and effects. It is completely feasible to accidentally wander into a cyberpunk-themed bar only to find an anime girl, Hank Hill and a talking, scale-accurate M1 Abrams tank debating their favorite episode of “Breaking Bad.”

People have made small cities with functional public transportation, movie theaters that play pirated movies and actual stand-alone games inside of the game. On the other end of the spectrum, people have made mysterious buttons that cause your screen to lock into a two-hour reading of the “Bee Movie” script. The limit to what an unrestricted audience can do inside of the game is both awe-inspiring and hilariously off-kilter.

This might be the secret to VRChat’s success, going from an unheard of side project to boasting a player base of more than 15,000 users consistently online. VRChat’s strength lies in its ability to entice you with the strange and make you stay for the mundane. It’s the digital equivalent of a Halloween party. All the shenanigans of the virtual world serve as icebreakers, and in a way, everyone is equal in the chaos.

Although the user base is made up of those involved in nerd/internet culture, the actual demographics of the platform are extremely varied. VRchat might be one of the few popular steam games to boast a near 50/50 split between male and female users.

The fact that none of its servers are region locked means that you will find yourself interacting with people from all over the world, and very interesting things can happen. VRChat isn’t monitored by anyone; it’s not blocked behind firewalls. The decentralized server system means that no one company or country controls what goes on.

It’s for this reason that VRChat’s large Chinese community has become a particular point of interest in the fandom. The lack of tracking and repercussions for speech inside the game means that Chinese users are willing to speak earnestly about life and news in their country, which people on the outside would be unable to hear otherwise. This includes conspiracies, propaganda and, most startling, first-hand accounts of the early days of China’s COVID-19 lockdown.

The easy and anonymous communication of VRChat allows for candid discussions of politics, sometimes to the point of heated debate. But that’s the magic of the platform. In a space where clout, internet points and reputations don’t exist, people are able to work out their bigotry and ignorance free from long-term fallout.

VRChat isn’t for everybody. This can’t be stressed enough. Its core identity is a refuge for social outcasts and weirdos — after all it’s the people who reject real-world interactions for virtual meetups with Squidward avatars that make up the game’s user base in the first place. But I like it.

It’s an experience that has drawn me in, and if you ever feel alone or stir-crazy enough during this pandemic to dip your toes into the pandemonium, you might find yourself liking it too. It is free.

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