It’s not that I thought that VRChat is without merit. It’s just that it’s the complete opposite of everything I look for in a video game. Whereas I prefer the slower, more ambling, and (above all else) solitary game, VRChat is the latest generation of manic online lawlessness.
If you’re unfamiliar, VRChat is part of the latest generation of massively multi-player online games that, unlike, say World of Warcraft or Halo, focus less on quests or initiatives, and instead create a virtual social space for individuals.
Its closest kin is Second Life, the once immensely popular (and now fairly abandoned) online community. Within Second Life, members created avatars for themselves, built houses, formed relationships, created interest groups, and made their own economy. It also encouraged a certain sort of goofy social lawlessness: forever etched in my memory is the time that an in-game interview was hacked by someone who made a parade of pink penises wiggle their way across the screen.
VRChat follows the lead of Second Life with user-defined avatars, which run the gamut in size and scope, from busty anime ladies, to tiny lil’ birds, to giant robots, to digital facsimiles of famous people. Compared to Second Life, VRChat’s avatars have much greater ranges of expression, due both to more complex design and the incorporation of virtual reality hardware (the “VR” of VRChat).
Even more so, though, VRChat seems to lean into the Wild West mentality that Second Life dabbled in. There certainly is some moderation in what is allowed behavior, it’s hard to say there is an iron-fisted oversight, given that VRChat’s most popular meme was Ugandan Knuckles, an in-game trolling method where multiple users would use an avatar skin of a bloated-looking Knuckles the Echidna to follow and harass others, all while spouting a fake “African” accent.
In other words, it was hard for me to see VRChat as anything other than Second Life dialed up to 11: a social site that served as another place for the id of the internet to expand.
And I’m sure it is still mostly that. (In fact, I’m positive.) Still, while diving down an internet rabbit hole, I came across a VRChat user named Syrmor. Though Syrmor gained some popularity for a video he made featuring a sweetly innocent kid playing VRChat whose motto was “Do Good. Die Great,” it turns out that Syrmor has been exploring a softer side of the game for a little while.
Specifically, Syrmor uses VRChat to meet and interview individuals who might normally be unable to speak to a larger community, due to access or ability. He has interviewed a man with ALS who chose a mushroom avatar due to his love of psychedelics, a kid who was grappling with being bullied and whose Kermit avatar reminded him of a more lighthearted time, and a man in Korea who was able to get a job lead through Syrmor’s followers.
In these cases, the interviews being conducted could always, say, be done via phone, but the combination of random encounters in VRChat and the weird illusion of physical closeness that VR provides lends a different tenor to these pieces.
My favorite Syrmor interview is one he did with a pastor who conducts baptisms in VRChat, specifically meant to cater to folks who are unable to attend physical church services.
There are some jokes about the avatars folks choose for VR church; in talking about the usual Sunday dress code, one user gestures to another user who happens to have a Winnie the Pooh avatar and asks, “Would someone, kind of, not wearing pants like this not be allowed?”
But there’s also something I find strangely moving about the whole encounter. Sure, it’s an anime girl getting baptized, but the digital church is built to be open and serene. The water is, somehow, beautifully rendered. The one-on-one attention and care is still there, and very real.
The pastor asks the avatar being baptized to crouch down, to give the effect of them being submerged in water. After some talk of being surrounded by God’s love, and accepting that love, the pastor asks the user to rise. When asked how he feels having been baptized digitally, he says, “I feel… like I just had an experience, even though I was just crouching.”
The thing about VR is that it truly does trick the brain. When using a VR device, the brain maps many of the experiences as it would in the “real world.” So, for individuals who may be unable to leave the house, the sensory experiences of VR might provide an incredible bridge to interaction and community.
It reminds me of a piece on Wii and XBox Bowling and its continued used by public libraries in virtual bowling leagues for older patrons, in that it too is centered on a digital version of a physical act that may no longer be accessible to everyone in the group, while also fostering socialization in an under-socialized community.
This is a long way of saying that it’s nice, even if just for a moment, to push past the frantic top-level energy of social sites like VRChat and see the folks using the platform to explore new ways of interaction.
Sure, there may be a digital SpongeBob hiding in the depths of the baptismal pool, but, then again, isn’t there always?