Meta is Dead, Long Live VRChat

I stumbled upon VRChat at about the same time most people did, during late 2017/early 2018 and smack bang in the middle of the incredibly unfunny ‘Ugandan Knuckles’ meme’s meteoric rise in popularity. The game, at that point in time, saw a huge influx of players — mostly kids aping their YouTube idols, spouting ‘do you know the way?’ and spitting (essentially scatting into their microphones) at the nearest anime cat girl. I’m not going to pretend to be above the juvenile entertainment that this period of VRChat provided and, despite not engaging in the activity myself, there was a certain thrill to being part of the internet zeitgeist. The game was essentially a huge festival for the eccentric — an endless party where the majority got to be in on the joke. Every session was a smorgasbord of truly bizarre events, and I have fond memories of attending a virtual housewarming in which Scooby-Doo argued the finer points of Cowboy Bebop with Jon Snow from Game of Thrones. The banter was warm and passionate, rarely mean-spirited and addictively entertaining. As with any large internet community, you could expect occasional pockets of homophobia, transphobia and racism (indeed, ‘Ugandan Knuckles’ had a questionable racial element) but something about the vocal, in-person nature of virtual reality seems to help curb toxicity. The immediacy of physical inhabiting an avatar within a world, despite it being virtual, seems to lead to people behaving a little better than they would behind a keyboard or static voice comms.

VRChat has, however, continued to flourish long after the Knuckles kids moved on and its fanbase continues to grow day by day, currently sitting at an impressive average daily player count of 22,000. Pandemic clearly helped, offering a coronavirus-free space for friends to meet up and watch videos, listen to music, or just make small talk with a bunch of like-minded strangers. Businessfolk and those with little knowledge of video games have begun to construct the narrative that the next big step for the tech industry will be led by Meta, not realising that its proposed advantages, essentially, already exist. Hell, you could easily run a business meeting through a private room in VRChat, you’d just have to accept that several of your colleagues might be dressed as Winnie the Pooh. Virtual spaces that parallel the real world have been available for several years now and, well before VRChat even existed, you could attend comedy clubs, regular clubs, live concerts and full-blown conventions in large multiplayer games like Second Life (which eventually developed its own in-game housing and land markets). VRChat captured the average gamer’s attention where Second Life could not — not just through (obviously) the implementation of true virtual reality — but through accessibility and ease of use. It takes five seconds to get into the game and find almost any pop-culture avatar you could think of all provided free of charge by generous members of the wider community. Also, if you want something a little more personal, it’s incredibly easy to jump on a website like Fiverr and pay someone a small fee to build a custom character for you to use. In-game traversal is snappy, allowing easy navigation between multiple worlds via a menu-based system. It is not hard to enjoy VRChat immediately upon booting it up, even if you don’t want to strap a big old headset to your noggin. Some members of the community even choose to eschew the VR component completely, preferring to play the game via a traditional first-person view on a monitor — a choice made for the sake of comfort (I know I can get pretty motion sick after half an hour on the Oculus), or simply because they do not feel like dropping several hundred pounds on the necessary set-up.

Returning to VRChat on a semi-regular basis over the years, I am equally impressed by how much the game has changed for the better on a technical level and stayed relatively similar on a community one (at least, from an outsider’s perspective). There is still a large focus on worlds that allow and encourage a sort of comical roleplay: a McDonald’s drive-thru, the My Hero Academia Highschool, a full recreation of Balamb Garden from Final Fantasy VIII. Players who place themselves in these instances are treated to several interactable set-pieces, prime opportunities for slapstick shenanigans. It is very rare to not hear people cracking up in these lobbies, enraptured by whatever insanity is unfolding. A grey alien, for example, might have positioned himself behind the till of a restaurant, serving burgers to a walking disco ball with sunglasses and Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, all while Pyramid Head and a sentient X-Wing have an impromptu dance-off in the car park. A screeching child, likely too young to be playing this game unsupervised, has acquired a Friday Night Funkin’ avatar. He’s in a car at the speaker of the drive-thru, screaming his order at a pissed-off Tanjiro who is begging the young man to calm down. This all happened to me: I was that grey alien. Every portal you step through will guarantee another memorable moment, a true taste of what a Ready Player One world may look like — the chaotic amalgamation of every media franchise imaginable play acted out by the internet at large. Remember that time Spiderman chased me in a mini-BMW while I sat shotgun with Tidus as we sped through the alleyways of the Hidden Leaf Village from Naruto? I do. It was one of the best nights of 2021.

The flipside to the intoxicating surrealism of the game is the genuinely normal, nice interactions that are usually taking place in the very same world. People are friendly in VRChat, usually logging in with the express desire of meeting new people and learning about different walks of life. I once met a man who was on a research trip surveying the Amazon Rainforest, we talked passionately about conservation for a while at the table of an upstairs bar, before his spotty internet connection dropped him from the server. I’ve played mini-golf with Canadian dads, drawn caricatures on the ocean floor with a gaggle of drumming cats and even attended cult movie nights led by in-game celebrities. I’ve seen entire groups of people humbled by the furry community, invading their little bubble in order to troll, only to receive an education in tolerant internet sub-cultures. Standing still in any given location will, nine times out of ten, result in somebody swinging by to say hello and shoot the shit with you — it’s the kind of openly pleasant interaction that makes you wish the real world could be similar. Maybe, however, that’s the joy of a pre-normalisation VR. If Meta were to arrive in its promised form, a revolutionary platform that introduces your average joe to the wonders of virtual space, then that wide-eyed, friendly curiosity would give way to something colder, something a little more corporate. As it stands, VRChat serves as a haven for the truly eccentric to coexist in a safe space, un-assailed by the crushing weight of what constitutes ‘normal’ interaction. If the game has proved anything to me over the course of multiple play sessions, it’s that anime geek utopia does exist and, for the most part, provides a constant stream of entertaining, positive social interaction. I should, however, postface this claim by acknowledging that, as a man, this kind of internet space is always going to be much easier for me to be a part of. It would be entirely wrong to try and claim that female, trans, non-binary and players with any kind of accent people may deem ‘foreign’ will share my experiences. Even behind the physical veil of an avatar, there will still be idiots who hear a feminine voice, or a voice that sounds ‘different’ and decide to act inappropriately — at least in VR you can make use of the block function, essentially erasing toxic individuals with the click of a button. Now, wouldn’t that be handy on a real night out?

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