Fifteen Hours in VRChat

Fifteen hours in most other games would give you a firm foundation and you’d expect someone who has committed such a large amount of time to give you a basic introduction to all of the moving components. When you think about it, fifteen hours of free time is a huge commitment — sure, it pales in comparison to the hours that I used to spend on games when I was a student and before, but as a crusty adult, it’s a terrifying amount of time. While the pandemic has freed up time that’d normally get eaten by things like commuting, or other in-person social engagements, fifteen hours is still fifteen hours. It’s roughly six viewings of Dune (2021), it’s all of Arcane with time to spare to watch True Detective season 1. With that in mind, believe me when I say that I feel I have barely dipped a toe into VRChat. My whole experience feels founded on sand, and everything I say could be the product of a few data points in a roiling sea of other experiences. The only constant is anime.

So what is VRChat? What actually is it? Ostensibly, it’s a game for talking to people largely through virtual reality, with the ability to choose your own avatar, and choose from a list of “worlds” (levels, maps) to join. There is a huge amount of nuance this definition is missing, because the impression that description gives you is probably something along the lines of a “Zoom, but in VR”, or gather.town. The thing that I think VR Chat shares most of its DNA with is actually Garry’s Mod. I’m not going to try and explain Garry’s Mod to you if you’ve never played it, but the key shared attributes are this:

  • Massive amounts of community content that permeate and define the normal player experience.
  • Social interaction as a critical component of the game (In Gmod this was dependent on mode, but things like DarkRP, Trouble in Terrorist Town, Spacebuild were all heavily dependent on collaboration and interactions).
  • World/Server based multiplayer scheme.
  • Incredible niche inner-communities.
  • Absolute jank.
  • Screaming children.

I played a lot of Garry’s Mod, and it’s a game that I remember playing in mod form in 2005/2006 (jesus christ), so perhaps it isn’t surprising that I’m taking the VRChat experience as well as I am. I’ve also got a good layer of cringe-protection from time spent in the nerd community at large, but we’ll get to that later. If Garry’s Mod and VR Chat didn’t have community created content, then they would have been dead months after their release, but they’re not. Garry’s Mod still sits at a respectable ~20k average, despite being almost a decade old (jesus CHRIST), and VRChat sits at roughly the same number, slightly lower. Would these be small numbers for any other game? Absolutely, though VRChat is slightly confounded by the fact that you don’t necessarily need Steam to play it (Oculus Quest users, for instance). The thing is, Garry’s Mod is old as absolute hell, and VRChat is a VR title, where pushing over a thousand concurrent players is incredibly impressive. I’m off on a tangent here, but it’s nice to have more evidence for my strong belief that the only thing that keeps games going for 5+ years is community content. Not live services, not a steady drip-feed of DLC, but community interactions.

You don’t need to understand what’s going on here, but the general explanation is that I was the best man at this wedding.

The Big Teenage Anime Elephant in the Room

VRChat is absolutely infested with children, and teenagers who have clad themselves in all manners of degenerate anime character. I imagine a huge chunk of this is to do with the massive success of the Oculus Quest as a VR platform, but can I just take a short diversion to say that I cannot believe parents allow their <16 year old children to play this game. Past me had to argue till I was blue in the face to play Grand Theft Auto 3 due to the bad press that game got, but modern kids are out here, playing a game where you will be regularly exposed to the most adult of content. Honestly, it doesn’t get more adult than this — if you’re an upcoming parent, do not let your kids play this game until they’re old enough to pay taxes. Hell, even I’m not sure if I’m old enough to play this game sometimes, and I’m crashing painfully into my thirties.

Yes, a big proportion of VRChat is people roughly eighteen years old, throwing on their favourite anime/videogame/anime videogame avatar and then either having conversations so cringe that they’ll permanently disfigure the unprepared, or having immensely awkward sexual or merely flirtatious interactions. I don’t want to accept that this is the majority of the game, primarily because I’m normally trying to avoid those scenarios, but there’s a good chance it is. If you’re going in looking for that experience, you’ll find it in spades. I am not — not because I’m some sort of pearl clutching prude, but because the prospect of interacting through those modes with people that could be more than ten years younger than me is immensely weird. I’m glad that it feels weird to me, because if it doesn’t feel weird to you, then you might need to be put on a list.

A great deal of VRChat is to do with safety, and there’s a plethora of options for how you want people to be able to interact with you. The developers have done a good job on this front, and it would have been incredibly easy for them to have taken a ‘it’s your responsibility approach’ similar to Facebook. It’s not perfect, but it’s a breath of fresh air compared to some other platforms that won’t even let you mute people. On the anime front, it is utterly omnipresent. I can feel myself becoming desensitised to the amount of anime that my eyeballs have ingested over the fifteen hours. I, myself, have an anime avatar. Do I know what it’s from? Not a clue, apparently it’s from some sort of tower defence mobile game. Why did I pick it? Because when everyone else has an anime avatar, you feel like the weird one for not having one. That’s right, I felt like the weird one. That’s how much anime there is. I picked the most “respectable” looking anime avatar I could find, and apparently it suits my voice, so I clearly picked well. I would consider myself someone who is at least partially knowledgeable on anime because I watched a lot as a kid and at university, but in comparison to most people on VRChat, I might as well have watched nothing but Emmerdale.

Sengetorix
The avatar I chose. Knowing my luck, he’s probably a mega fascist in the game or something.

I’ve made a lot of comparisons to MCM with people who have watched me stream VRChat. The age distribution, the obsession with anime, the quantity of furries and the general debauchery that occurs. I think it’d be very easy to be a cynical, crusty, stuffy person about the whole thing, to pretend that I was superior and to basically treat VRChat like a zoo, much in the same way that some people treat comic-con: as a freak show. I don’t want to be that way. Ultimately, if someone wants to dress up as a double-cheeked-up, seven foot tall furry with absolute honkers, as long as they’re not displaying themselves to underage people, what do I care? Have interactions with some people made me physically cringe? Absolutely; I can’t get rid of that, it’s just a physiological reaction to my mind imploding. Can I judge people from taking the forms they want, in an environment where they’ve got anonymity and safety? No. I mean, I’m definitely doing it on a subconscious level, but I don’t want to be that person. I want to be the “are you winning son” of humans: I won’t pretend to understand what I’m seeing, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to berate people for what is (mostly) harmless.

Buzz Lightyear, the later years.

Lines of Communication

For me, the game is talking to other human beings in an environment where you have social cues like body language. This body language varies from absolutely nothing (people playing on desktop without VR, something I don’t really understand), to full body tracking. I have both a Valve Index (which allows for rudimentary hand gestures/finger tracking), and the Vive trackers (that enable full body tracking), which puts me in the “landed gentry” class of VRChat. This is something that I will never be able to put into words, but there is something right about moving your legs in real life, and have them move in the game. I watched a video which had the point of “going from normal VR to full body tracking is like going from desktop to VR”, and in some ways I agree. There is a level of interaction that is enabled by having these tracking features that goes beyond “the ability to plow ass”: it’s the ability to express complex social cues via body language. It’s not something you think about when playing desktop games, but think about how important your ability to point at things is in real life. In a desktop game, to get someone’s attention I will have to shout their name over voice-coms, usually to an entire game of people. In VRChat, I can point at them. That’s it. Ostensive definition. Such a critical aspect of human communication that has been completely missing from games until now. If someone gives me a thumbs up, I know what that means. If someone waves at me, I know what that means. Again, not something you think about for desktop games, but something that “unlocks” in your brain when you play VRChat with full body tracking.

We’re still missing critical aspects such as in-depth face-tracking, though some solutions are already there, if not extremely creepy, but it doesn’t feel like it matters that much. Your ability to gesture with your body gives you access to a powerful social toolkit, and nuance. Incidentally, one of the funniest interactions that I’ve had in VRChat was with a guy who also had full body tracking, and one of the best/worst avatars I’ve ever seen. His face is the featured picture (at the top) of this post. Full body tracking enables some of the greatest comedy that a videogame can provide, ranging from people performing some of the most deranged dances that one can do, to fully stacking it and imploding into pile. I, on one occasion, lost my balance and had to steady myself with my hand, much to the mirth of a person watching who immediately charged up and said while laughing “I saw you almost stack it dude, don’t try to hide it”. The difference between someone playing one of the pre-canned dancing animations, and someone actually dancing using tracking is incredibly stark, and serves as a fantastic reminder of how far from normal human movement most animations are. There’s little mistakes, nuances, movements that occur very regularly with normal people, that just aren’t captured with pre-canned looping animations. Even with just hand tracking, there is a degree of personality that is conveyed in how we move that makes people distinct. It’s genuinely a wonderful thing to see, even if people are using it to fuck each other while staring at a mirror.

Is it perfect? No. Sometimes I will occlude one of the tracking bases, which will send a limb flying off in a random direction, much to the distress of anyone watching. Is it completely unique, an experience unlike any other game I’ve ever played? Yep. Even if you’re just using the hand motions, holding a genuine conversation in VRChat with the power of moveable hands makes talking over Discord feel like talking through a can.

The VRChat Steam banner, utterly inaccurate because there’s only one anime character, and the banana doesn’t look like it was grown in Chernobyl.

The People

So who have I met in my VRChat adventures? Well, I met Adele while joining a Lakehouse Lodge server; at least, they said they were Adele. They didn’t sound like Adele, and they were using a costume that looked like Stephen King’s IT, but I believed them because they held a tone. In that same server I met someone who was so incredibly high that supposedly they kept forgetting they were in VR. I would have believed they were pretending until I literally heard them rip a bong during play. Soon I would be his best man at his wedding to a lizard that was sat on the table next to him. Still can’t believe he managed to get Adele at his wedding. In another session I witnessed three freestyle rapping cats who would challenge people around them to join in, and who were also remarkably good. They asked me if I was from Brixton when they learned I was British, thankfully never asking me to attempt a freestyle, which might have actually ended my life despite the fact I was being fed lines from the ghost writers I was streaming to.

Their avatars were basic, but their flows were advanced.

In that very same session, I saw a debate between Link (from Zelda) and someone who looked like a parrot with a monocle on the nature of objective morality: a conversation that was so dry and tedious, that it was as though the universe had summoned the rapping cats to balance them out. In one of the more negative interactions, I was asked by someone what I thought about “colonialisation”, who then proceeded to follow me around and ask me if I could teach them to speak with a British accent. Much like with a lot of games, racism and sexism are still extremely commonplace in VRChat, but luckily more manageable due to the advanced social features. Though no defence would have been enough to prevent a pair of guys using Sims 4 (I think?) avatars from prowling through a club, imitating Eton accents while espousing a gamut of views that would be completely fitting for someone from Eton. While I felt sorry for the people they were berating, I was also absolutely doubled over in fits of laughter (which was fully communicated by my avatar).

Joining one world, I saw a fully textured and set up pop-up stand, advertising some sort of anime-wehrmacht roleplaying group. They moved onto another world, presumably to continue advertising their group before I was approached by a German furry wearing neon green clothing. He liked to play Germans in videogames, but hated Nazis and disliked the idea that anyone thought he could be one. I pondered to myself how it would feel to be in his shoes, and to see an entire roleplaying group of anime characters pretending to be the army in an appalling period of your country’s history. Then again, I had been asked how I felt about colonialism by someone who thought it might have been a good thing, so maybe I do know how that feels.

I have been called out on multiple occasions for being British, and for people liking my voice. This is not abnormal, I’m now incredibly used to people mentioning that they like how I sound, and to pretend otherwise is to be aggrevatingly modest. It does however, mean that people have been more friendly than they should have been. Several have asked if they can be my friend, or otherwise followed me around a world, which is an experience ranging from “endearing” to actually quite stressful. I have mentioned to friends that the whole thing can induce an experience akin to stage freight, where you’re painfully aware that you’re about to be exposed to a massive group of strangers, any of whom might ask deeply personal questions. The full body tracking lends to this effect, where it starts to feel a bit like a bizarre theatre production rather than a chat room. You start to feel like a character that has to be maintained. In some ways, this has helped me maintain my sanity; I have absolutely no wish for anyone in VRChat to know me in real life, but if they want to befriend the VRChat persona, that’s fine. They can laugh/fawn over the way I sound, they can laugh/fawn over my silly avatar, but it all has to stay in that steel-rimmed box.

Has every world I’ve joined been an absolute joy/experience that I’d document here? Of course not, there’s plenty of misses. For every world where I’ve had a decent conversation, there’ve been three where people are just staring at mirrors or otherwise being hugely obnoxious. The difference between this and other modern games though, is that if I enjoy the world I’m in, I can stay in it. There is no matchmaking, I’m not occasionally booted off to another world, one of significantly lower quality. Obviously it doesn’t make sense for VRChat to have matchmaking, but this dynamic applies to every game: if you’re enjoying the people you’re playing with and against, you should always be able to stay with them. Sometimes I’ve joined a world on a whim, and stayed in there for thirty minutes or more because the vibe has been right. People are talking like human beings, nobody’s being horribly obnoxious, and there is entertainment to be had.

The End

So does VRChat change my standing recommendation that VR is just not worth it? No. The only cheap option to play VRChat is via the Quest, and that’s a Facebook product. If you’ve already got a VR headset, then hell, the game’s free: what does it matter? Have I had a thoroughly interesting time of playing it? Absolutely, and I’ll probably continue to play it until there’s no more novelty for it to provide. There’s a genuine question of whether that’ll happen, given the novelty of the game is “people” and the game has been on a positive growth trajectory for the whole time, but I assume at some point I’ll tire of my eyeballs being coated in anime. If they don’t, then it’s time to put me out to pasture. I’d love for some of my friends to also have VRChat and to be involved, just to share in the incredibly strange experience, but I can’t (with a good conscience) recommend VR to enable that.

Does this feel like the future, as I mentioned in a previous post? It does, and it’s kind of terrifying. There’s a lot of buzz right now about the Facebook metaverse, tapping into that Ready Player One dream that I’ve talked about before. Will that platform have as much community control? Will that platform respect the safety of players over Facebook’s insatiable desire to monetise their souls? I think we know the answers to those questions, and I expect the metaverse will exploit just as much as Facebook. I wonder to myself if VRChat will be to the metaverse as the old internet was to the new internet: this crazy wild-west place, where people had their own worlds and personas, with very little in the way of top-down control (but strong individual control). Something that we’ll look back on and remember fondly, our nostalgia goggles perfectly filtering out the cat avatar whose testicles inflated in time with the rhythm of the person’s voice. What a shame that’d be.

They also had extremely long legs.

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