i spent a sunday in VRchat
Updated: Feb 28, 2020
Here's what I saw. by Samuel Gee
Life, friends, is boring. Reality is oppressive and expensive. Waking life just supplies endless eco-fascist nightmare fuel. The movies cost too much, and besides, the theater never has good parking anyway. Ecological collapse appears imminent. Why not spend one of the few remaining unpolluted Sundays inside virtual reality? I resurrected my middle school Steam account, downloaded VRChat, and tried to find out what was going on.
Boasting four million active users, VRChat is one of the largest MMORPGs. It’s not the first by a long shot. Its predecessors include games like Second Life, which debuted in 2003, and The Sims, whose latest expansion just launched earlier this year. Users play VRChat with a headset and motion-tracking controllers. I had neither. The game also supports desktop play, but PC users are limited to one in-game hand. I did feel like I was missing out on the immersion that makes the game so appealing to so many users, but it didn’t stop me from playing. After a quick tutorial – click to interact with objects, hold V to speak, WASD to move around – I was ready to go. Just one small problem. I didn’t have a body. Lucky for me, I was able to take a stroll down Big Al’s Avatar Corridor. A player’s avatar (their in-game appearance) can be anything from a giant armored dragon to an android. I wandered a bit before I chose Ernie from Sesame Street. Nonthreatening, familiar, likely to spur comfortable childhood memories. Perfect.
The first world I walked into, Sky Camp, was a campsite on a floating island. Everything had that endearingly bubbly look of early 2000s animation. Tents with oriental rugs faced a campfire, which sent up round sparks into a grey-blue sky. A raft with a bedsheet sail lazily floated around the island. I set out to make friends. The first user I met looked like a cross between a Dalek and the Michelin Man. It was also his first time playing the game. He insulted me with a few slurs because I couldn’t tell him how to flick people off. A bit rude, but no problem – VRChat just rolled out a few tools that allow players to block or mute harassers. I decided to check out another world.
VRChat allows its users to build custom worlds with their own skins, attractions, and designs. I visited several worlds during my time in-game. Space Dodecahedron, a nested set of dodecahedrons floating in space, each with their own furious sun at the center, had to be my least favorite. I was the only one in the server. It took me twenty minutes to figure out how to move around without falling through one of the gaps in the dodecahedron. VRChat’s meant to be a social game. Users can bowl, play chess, or fall into a high noon standoff, but other users are the game’s core.
The next server I explored, Room of the Rain, was just a bedroom with a patio opening onto an endless rainstorm. Users could control the rain’s volume with a slider on the bedroom wall. Other than that, the room existed as a calming space for players to talk with each other. The YouTuber Syrmor makes a popular video series where he records people talking about their lives in VRChat. People discuss everything from bullying, to grief, to getting punched for a chicken dinner. It’s easy to see why people open up in VR. There's something disarmingly heartbreaking about Kermit the Frog telling millions of viewers about the worst times in his life. There’s no body to judge, plenty of space to escape, and the feeling of total anonymity. Not that VRChat conversations all center around debriding the soul or whatever. (I had a lovely conversation about hickory trees.) It’s hard to treat the game as Very Serious Business when you’re hopping through a hotel lobby with Pikachu on one side and Sailor Moon on the other. VRChat isn’t afraid to embrace its cartoonish charm.
I decided to hop back into Sky Camp before I logged off. Around the campfire, one user talked two new players through their controls. I hopped down onto the floating raft and met a user from the Netherlands. He showed me his custom-made avatar, a robo-elf with adjustable armor, and told me he wanted to get into video game design. It was night where he was, late afternoon outside my window. We talked about our mutual worries for the future as the raft circled the floating island. It felt silly, the VR raft with a bedsheet, middle schoolers joking on voice chat on the island above, the whirr of my laptop fan, but also welcoming, somehow. Safely ridiculous. He didn’t want me to screenshot his avatar. If someone wanted to find out who he was, he said, they could find him in VR.
Samuel Gee attends the University of North Carolina.