Over the past year, I’ve spent 800+ hours in VRChat (a social virtual reality platform where VR users can meet and interact with one another) hanging out, conducting interviews, and doing participant observation with gender non-conforming people as part of my research-creation Ph.D. at Concordia University. VRChat is made up of user-driven content and offers unique insight into how queer VR enthusiasts envision the metaverse (shared virtual worlds), create gender-affirming content, and form emergent imaginative communities.
I became hooked on social VR in 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Chelsea, an old friend of mine who has been playing VRChat since 2018, introduced me to several trans and non-binary people who described finding VR communities and forms of embodiment that relieved their gender dysphoria. I visited gorgeous landscapes inhabited by anime girls, furries, and femme-bois dancing, flying around, and cuddling. I met avatar makers whose bodies shimmered with charms from their virtual lovers. I lay on the beach listening to my friends play music and sing. I had an expanded sense of my queer body, both online and offline.
One of the most interesting things about social VR is phantom touch, a term coined by the community to describe physical sensations visually triggered by interpersonal touch. I am currently making my own avatar, one that reflects my sensorial experiences in VR. It features translucent skins and touch-responsive animations that extended beyond the borders of my body.
I’ve presented my work on several occasions, most recently for an Art Forum lecture at Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. One challenge is that relatively few people use social VR and cannot imagine the novel ways that people relate to one another. I often begin my talks by guiding listeners through a typical evening of playing VRChat, summarized below.
Imagine you are alone in your apartment at the end of a long day. Everything looks dull. You don’t feel like watching TV or scrolling through social media; you crave something more human. You rearrange your living room furniture, flatten your sofa, and create a nest of pillows and blankets. You strap three motion trackers to your body – one on your hip and one on each foot – and pick up your VR headset, which is attached to your PC. You grab your controllers and put your headset on. It’s more lightweight than one would expect, but not totally comfortable. Soon that will become less noticeable.
You launch VRChat and find yourself alone in your chosen home world. Right now it is Hygge Night, a softly lit house with a backyard that has a view of the stars. Like the vast majority of worlds and avatars available on VRChat, it was created and uploaded by a user; in this case, one named Eileensolvqvist.
You pull up your menu to select your avatar. You pick an anime girl with cat ears and a tail. Your trackers are represented as gray orbs on your hip and feet. You move your body to align with them, raise your arms into a t-pose, and pull the triggers on your controllers. Your virtual body snaps into place, mirroring your actual movements. You can now dance, lie down, and hug your friends.
You settle down on your couch. Lofi music plays in the background and you can faintly hear crickets. You are not sure if the sound is coming from the virtual or physical world. The two start to mesh and you feel completely immersed.
You pull up your menu to see who’s online. You remember that one of your friends is having a birthday party. You click their user picture and select “request invite”. Moments later, you get a notification that your request has been accepted and you click “join world”. Once the world loads, you feel like you’re at a physical party. 3D audio enables you to hear the voices of closeby users. You pull up your menu to check the number of players in the world – there are 30, and you don’t know most of them. You feel shy and take a moment to orient yourself.
You begin to explore the world. It is bathed in blue light and features a lofted house atop a hill beneath the stars. After walking through the crowded main area of the house, you reach the patio and see a pool and hot tub. You spot a few of your close friends in the hot tub and head in that direction. They greet you with hugs, head pats, and kisses on your cheek. You feel pleasant tingling sensations as they touch you. As you step into the hot tub, you can sense warmth and your body relaxes.
Your friend Lugz has been working on their avatar and has added rainbow wings that you can grab and stretch. You and another friend wrap yourself in Lugz’s wings. They have a fireworks feature attached to their avatar and shoot it in the sky. It lingers for several minutes, showering everyone in tiny pink petals.
You spend the next few hours chatting with new people. You eventually get up and join the dance floor. You meet an avatar maker whose humanoid body sits atop a cyberpunk spider. She asks if you want a ride and points to the spider’s back. You’re not sure what she means, but when you hover your controller over the spider, a message pops up that says “sit”. You click it and find yourself atop the spider. She attaches herself to the front and runs in circles around the world. You laugh with glee.
Eventually, you realize that you’ve been playing for 5 hours. You circle the world once more, saying goodbye to old and new friends. You feel the kindness and warmth around you without the exhaustion that can come from leaving home. When you remove your headset, your apartment doesn’t look so dull; you see it with relief, as you would when coming home from a night out. As you get ready for bed, you reflect on the evening. The memories feel real, spatial, and embodied. The friendships feel genuine. You fall asleep, your dreams colored by what you’ve experienced.