An Introduction To VRChat

Virtual Reality Is Already Here

Jun 19, 2023
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Where do I begin talking about this strange universe into which I’ve materialized? Do we start in the predictable place for a plane geek, the F/A-18E Super Hornet hanger, ready to take a new jet out for a spin? Maybe we should skip ahead to the cabaret with floating, floral lights rotating around golden pillars, the dancers calling forth duplicates of themselves, filling the stage with their performances? Or do I simply start at the beginning, in the marble-floored lobby of a media studio, a crystalline being surrounded by assorted anime characters, a couple suits of power armor, a few human-looking types, and one capybara dressed in a very fine waistcoat? This is, after all, just another day in virtual reality.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that our current day virtual reality is limited to console and PC games specifically designed for VR, but limited in offerings, popular titles like Beat Saber and Half-Life Alyx and little else. You could also be forgiven for thinking that our virtual meeting spaces look like Meta’s bland, lifeless avatars, nonexistent from the waist down, whose purpose is to monetize everything they create while looking as outdated as a Mii from the early 2000s. Meta is Facebook, by the way, for folks who are still having trouble adapting to the sudden change in the company’s name. I wouldn’t blame anyone for taking a single look at this kind of VR and thinking, “that’s it.” I thought much the same until a particular video documentary opened my eyes.

The reality of this virtuality couldn’t be farther from the truth. There are entire worlds full of color and wonder. Scenes set in space, or under the ocean. Clubs pulsing with lasers. Late-night show style interviews. Live musicians and performers. If your imagination can conjure it, it probably exists. And it’s called VRChat.

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I wasn't kidding about the talk-show style interviews. This is a peek at one of the stages in The Virtual Reality Show's studio, a community I mention later on in this article.

Dressing For The Party

It’s been less than 48 hours since I booted up my new headset. Most new players to VRChat describe a similar, chaotic experience when dropping into public lobbies for the first time. Some never log in again afterwards. We can discuss why a little later. For now, I have instead cautiously opted to spend some time alone in private world instances. I experiment with movement and gestures. It’s like learning to walk all over again. I sometimes wobble, dizzy and unused to the disconnect of the visual movement, and I often have to close my eyes or sit down on the bed behind me. But I’m determined. I’m on a time limit. There’s a gathering by invite later tonight at a media studio. Well, more like the club attached to it. It seems like an ideal way to mingle with some people in a more moderated environment, and there’s no way I’m going to miss it. I might just need to find a nice place to sit once I’m inside.

I should probably say this outright, here at the start of things. VRChat is not the typical game we talk about here on Sprites and Dice. In fact, I’m struggling to think of any games remotely like it. In some ways, it most closely resembles the old-school, text-based chatrooms from the internet of the 90s. Except if all the typing was replaced by 3D modeled worlds and avatars. Imagine a game where all you’re supposed to do is socialize with others, similar to perhaps an MMO (massive multiplayer online) game lobby or hub area. Except of course, your peripheral vision is tricked into making you think you’re standing in the middle of it. Not your typical definition of a game, but when anyone refers to VRChat while discussing it, they’ll inevitably say, “this game.” Folks have since done much more than this with their worlds, but this is a good starting point. The tip of the iceberg.

The tools to create worlds and avatars are completely free, so anyone with experience or even just the desire to learn some modeling and Unity skills can create and upload. Anyone can be anything and meet up anywhere. That’s an awful lot of promise and imagination, but to those that know it, VRChat has something of a reputation. That is, its public lobbies have something of a reputation. If my introduction to this piece has set any kind of tone, you’re probably imagining an endless cascade of fantastical places you could visit, as limitless as the desires of their creators. But we have to remember one very important thing: VRChat is the new “Wild West” of the internet, and when I say anything and everything can be made, I mean that literally.

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It's a game about being social with other people, and yet somehow folks have figured out how to turn it into a functional flight sim.

In fact, lots of people describe today’s VR as resembling the old internet of the 90s in many ways. It has seemingly no set boundaries, everyone is still trying to figure out what they can do with it, and it is moderated only by a small staff of its own and the communities that inhabit it. This means that for every amazing place you find with chill people to talk to, you are equally likely to find three worlds filled with screaming kids, obscenities, blatant racism, and players griefing other players (usually with egregious sound effects or visuals aimed at crashing your game).

There are security settings that let you hide and mute these players, as well as a “report player” feature, but these tools are basic. You’ll still see silent robot avatars floating about, letting you know individuals are nearby in case you want to manually unblock them. These experiences feel hollow, the immersion broken. Nothing like a few ghost robots staring at you to know that you’re ignoring part of the world in front of you. Having seen enough videos before getting my headset and knowing about these hurdles, I looked for Discord communities ahead of time, focused groups with specific interests I could join, usually holding their events in private, invite-only worlds moderated by dedicated staff. Like the afterparty I was about to log into.

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Some worlds are just fun rides like you'd find at a Disney theme park. This one's called Magic Quest and culminates at a dragon fight!

As a new player to VRChat, I am confined to a set number of avatars that come with the game. I have to put on one of these “suits” until I level up enough in the game to upload my own. I will later learn about avatar worlds that let you clone and save publicly available offerings, but for now those remain unknown to me. I need an avatar with good performance anyway for this event, a manageable amount of polygons and no flashy effects, so that the world can render the gathering without turning PCs into smoking rubble heaps. I settle on a genderless, crystalline suit of armor that speaks to me.

Nervously, I make my way into the marble-floored foyer of the studio, and the staff directs me to the club off to one side. I am greeted by neon signs and a water fountain spilling out over a Japanese-style rock garden. Across the club, a live DJ spins tunes to a dancing mob of rainbow avatars, a nearby cherry blossom tree flashing colors in time with the beats. Everyone seems to have brought glowing or colorful avatars to shine on the dark dance floor, and I am suddenly very thankful for my choice of avatar with its mirror finish. I have never learned to dance in real life, though. I’m far too self-conscious and anxious, so I find a quiet corner just outside the dance area where some people are talking, and I introduce myself. They perk up when I mention that I’ve been in VR for less than two days and tell me about all kinds of interesting things. I spend most of my evening chatting with one particular person, a miniature anime boy float-reclining in midair, wearing a hoodie that looks like it's made out of a galaxy of stars, the outline of which gently shifts across rainbow hues, a black cat’s face occasionally winking on the chest.

Everyone here is very nice. And I’ve never experienced such a fantastical blend of light and sound and space. The venue itself seems alive in a way that no real-life location ever could be. To describe it as “magical” seems perhaps a bit cliché. Reductive. Yet it’s the only word that comes to mind in this moment.

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A selfie from that night. I'm about as bad with VR selfies as I am with ones IRL (in real life).

Behind Closed Doors

Communities, I think, are the beating heart of VRChat. As someone who’s owned a VR headset for about a month now, there’s a lot I still don’t know. But I say this bit with confidence. There are communities for everything. For better or for worse. I am reminded keenly that the internet is nothing more than a tool, and it’s 100% up to the users to determine what that tool is used for. Through the media studio community I joined, known as The Virtual Reality Show, I learned that there were some overlapping interests for me in VR spaces. Flight sims being one of them! From sitting in a VR studio audience, watching performances and interviews, and attending their after-gatherings, I was now actively hunting across virtual worlds for other communities. It wasn’t too difficult. If you’re looking to do the same, a quick Google search or finding notice boards inside worlds will point you towards community Discords. Those allow you to keep track of schedules and get direct links to private events. Things for me were starting to get interesting.

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The Virtual Reality Show also hosts other events besides interviews. Musicians, singers, live comedy, and dance have all come to their stages. Featured: Eile Monty.

I say this about nearly every industry or community, but they’re all small worlds. No pun intended here for literal VR worlds, some of which can actually be pretty massive size-wise. What I mean is that it doesn’t take long before you realize there’s a critical mass of people who all know of one another in any space, given a few degrees of separation. One of the unintended advantages of landing in a media studio as my first community is that it becomes something of a hub. I begin following performers and creators into their own spheres, and there is no shortage of cross-pollination between staff in the TVRS studio and staff in other interesting places. Seemingly at random one day I get notice that there is an upcoming cabaret performance in a place called Evergarden. They’ve only been live for a couple of months, performing completely new sets of dances every three weeks, but already they’re filling to capacity.

Their Discord says to request an invite off a specific account at a very specific time when “doors open” to the public. I have a mini Friday night panic attack as my newbie self figures out how to do this at the appointed time, failing to prep properly. Somehow I get in, get cleared by the staff with another hundred invite requests behind me, and find my way to an empty seat directly in front of the stage. Shout out to the other two VR newbies I sat with who decided to dress as a pair in matching Wario and Waluigi avatars. I myself am dressed as a bodiless robot drone with hovering hands tonight, one of the best performance avatars I have. The rules here are pretty strict for wearing optimized avatars, as the performers are going to need all the bandwidth and there are a LOT of guests. Having seen some performances in VR already, I think I am prepared for the show to come. I am not.

It’s not like I haven’t seen dance shows in real life before. I have. But the performers and staff understand something I’d, of course, overlooked as a VR newbie: if there’s a performance in virtual reality, why not use the technology to add things that couldn’t be done in the real world. Props materialize into dancers' hands. Avatars transform mid-performance. A single dancer clones themselves, in one dancer’s case multiple times, allowing them to choreograph their own complete dance partner or troupe, moving in perfect sync around themselves. Some dancers even use props in their physical play spaces, perfectly aligned to ones on the virtual stage, spinning high into the air. To say that the performances were mind-blowing wouldn’t even be doing them justice. I am convinced what I saw that night was one of the greatest spectacles a person can partake of in VR. A true pinnacle of virtual performance. I have to find my jaw on the floor somewhere under my seat before getting up to mingle during the afterparty.

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Some worlds can only be visited if you're using a PC VR setup. This is one dancer on stage, by the way.

Expanding Horizons

I don’t think I’m ever going to get tired of watching performers dance, sing, or play music in virtual reality. But every day expands my mind into greater possibilities. What if? I’ll be in a movie theater world, lying on the bed in my real-life room while similarly reclining in VR, staring up at a screen that takes up my full view while watching anime with a friend, and then I’ll think, “what if I found a cozy cabin world with a big screen TV to load my YouTube viewing into?” It sure beats just sitting in front of my PC monitors. The same thoughts jump into my mind as I toy with all kinds of ways VR might expand my interests.

For example, I’ve always wanted to learn a couple of languages. I have a pretty decent sense of Japanese grammar, having studied it a bit, and which I still maintain is far easier to grasp than English grammar, but I have a severe lack of motivation to study vocabulary and writing. Not to mention one of my biggest problems: I have no one to practice speaking with. With VR, I now have easy access to multilingual rooms where people go to practice any language they’re learning, chatting with people from around the world! And this is free, requiring no special travel or class fees on my part. “Free,” minus the cost of the headset and/or a gaming PC to hook it up to, depending on the model one buys. Probably a topic for a separate article. The point remains, though. All I have to do is study a little on my own and attend some scheduled events as I’m able. It’s a fantastic alternative to spending money on lessons and commuting who knows how far. The motivation is back.

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Club worlds can be fun for dancing, but they also make great places to just vibe to some excellent music.

I have always wanted to learn sign language. I’m not sure exactly what it is about ASL (American Sign Language), specifically, that interests me. If I had to put my finger on something, I’d say it’s the appeal of conversing without the need for verbalizing combined with grammar being a sort of non-factor, blended as it is into the natural flow of signing. I think being able to talk with someone in their primary language is just a cool thing to do, and sign language is no different. VR seems like the perfect opportunity to pursue practice, though there are some considerations.

Virtual sign language is an adapted form of the various world sign languages out there. VR controllers have limits. You can’t, for example, cross your fingers in VR. Tech inventors are working on next gen gloves that might enable this one day, but for now there are just some gestures that can’t be done in virtual reality. What this means for me is that studying ASL is like studying 1.5 languages. For every word I learn in VR, I am encouraged to learn actual ASL on the side, to use in the real world. The extra work might be a deterrent to some, but I see this as a bonus, a sort of 2-for-1 learning discount rather than an added burden.

Once again, I find a community. This one offers free lessons to anyone willing to fill out a quick “why I want to learn” and abide by some very reasonable guidelines. My first meet is full of friendly and accepting people, many of whom already know quite a bit of sign language. I managed to study a few basic phrases and signs before attending, so I can tell people that I’m new, spell out words, and politely ask for things to be repeated. But I also realize just how much I have to learn when I’m asked how long I’ve studied and I can’t easily say “one week.” At least VRChat has a text typing feature. Thankfully, as well, today’s lesson is also all about numbers and counting.

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If the internet is cats, then you being a cat on the internet certainly isn't a stretch.

Worth Exploring

There’s usually something new around the corner for me in VR, but that doesn’t always seem to be the case for everyone. I’ve met some very nice people online who spend the bulk of their time in VRChat’s public rooms. You remember me mentioning those right, in all their scary glory? It’s almost inconceivable to me that some people are able to brave the slot machine of these spaces, accumulating the requisite hours of playtime to achieve the rank of “trusted user,” a purple badge of honor that marks you as a true VR vet, never knowing some of the spectacles of which they could be partaking. I try and spread the word where it seems appropriate, though it’s always important to remember that everyone takes something different away from VRChat. I’m very much an extrovert, and I appreciate that there are lots of people playing this game who are very opposite from me. Some folks just want the feeling of a place to sit, letting others do the talking around them.

In fact, many folks on VRChat express varying degrees of social awkwardness, shyness, or neurodivergence. Depending on the room I find myself in, this can be completely normal. Being in tune with what I am self-conscious about, my own awkwardness about being seen dancing, a social fear that’s kept me from learning for literal decades, has given me a tiny bit of perspective on this. And like others, I find comfort interacting through an avatar of my choosing, my real face hidden behind a headset. It probably comes as little surprise by this point, but I have found a VR dance academy that offers all the lessons you’d expect from a dance studio. They charge via Patreon for regular lessons, but the prices are far less than what attending an in-person studio would cost. I’m considering adding “learn to dance” to my list of VR-inspired self-improvements. I’ll probably need to invest in full body tracking upgrades one day too, but that’s down the line when I have the money for that kind of thing. For now, this one gets filed under “future interests.”

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Some of the coziest moments happen with the smallest spaces. Or sometimes the smallest avatars.

I have finally managed to attend a chill-out night organized by my original TVRS community. When special events aren’t held at the studio, the community often organizes hangouts, private gatherings to play games in VR, sing karaoke, or just sit around and talk. It’s a great way to meet more people in a controlled setting, and I’ve always managed to miss them due to either prior engagements or time zone mismatches. The topic of discussion when I drop in is Apple’s new headset. There are a lot of mixed feelings about it, about the number of units they’re making and the very high price tag. I can’t shake the feeling, though, that of all the companies getting into making headsets, Apple stands the greatest chance of changing the course of the VR experience.

For now, everyone agrees that we like VRChat the way it is. Communities self-regulate, and we all enjoy the freedom the game offers. No one is sure how long these golden days of unbridled creativity will last. If a tech giant will outcompete it with their own platform, or if they will try to sterilize it one day. For now, we all enjoy each other’s company and our hangout for what it is. I find someone during the meetup who recently took an ASL class in real life and is thinking of continuing practice in VR. We exchange a friend request to meet up another time together, and I let them know how to get set up with the signing community I found.

Virtual life continues, for now as it has for the last several years, largely out of the view and out of mind of much of the public. But it exists. It thrives. I feel privileged to be a part of it. No one knows what these early days in VRChat will turn into as the years progress, alongside the technology, but for now what we have is enough. I intend to continue exploring, seeing the best of what these fantastical worlds have to show, and maybe making a few more friends in the process.

Adam Factor