The Internet’s ubiquity is something we take for granted, but we should take a step back and think about just how powerful it is as a communication tool. Through the Internet, not only have small pockets of culture formed entirely through special tools, but they have thrived, expanded, and often taken over the way we think and talk to each other. Sometimes, that means the way we break, digest and discuss global news looks nothing like it did ten years ago. Sometimes, we use characters from Sonic the Hedgehog to make fun of Africans. Yes, this feature is about VR Chat.
You may be wondering what the hell VR Chat even is. Like Habbo Hotel and Second Life before it, VR Chat is a new communication platform that started small, but has seen explosive growth due to unique features that have allowed people to come together and interact online in ways that haven’t been done before. From a combination of technology, absurdity, and the laissez-faire nature of individual Internet spaces, VR Chat is becoming the latest hot zone for memes, user-generated content, and of course controversy.
If you are familiar with VR Chat, it’s probably because of… Ugandan Knuckles. Ugandan Knuckles is both a fascinating example of how memes are created and shared, powerful Internet age inside jokes that double as cultural change markers, as well as a sad reminder that Internet and gamer communities left unchecked still can be seen as breeding grounds for some of humanity’s lingering problems. A crude drawing of Knuckles from Sonic the Hedgehog has been around for ages, but thanks to a unique feature of VR Chat, that drawing became something more.
VR Chat sees players, using HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, inhabit virtual avatars, 3D models that can track movement, mimic mouth movement, and even play games built into the software. Players can upload their own models to the game, which has of course led to some of the most bizarre manifestations of copyright infringement in video games. This doughy version of Knuckles became a popular avatar for trolls, and somehow that became combined with an ironic fascination with a no-budget, African action movie called Who Killed Captain Alex? This means players using the Knuckles model will swarm other players, yell in fake Ugandan accents about princesses and “knowing de way,” and of course racist art of the character wearing grass skirts and wielding spears has become popular as well.
The experience of VR Chat hasn’t just been about spreading bad Internet jokes, however. The raw power of drawing people en masse to a new tool means bringing new kinds of experiences along with it, good or bad. Two other recent headlines involving VR Chat has shown the inherent risk of sudden, unexpected growth in technology, and also opened questions of safety and health risks, and how we can identify and deal with them as they happen.
The first is that players are now using unofficial versions of VR Chat to connect, in order to bypass certain obstacles. This inadvertently opened up the user base to cyber attacks, and unofficial VR Chat clients are now huge open doors for malware and other Internet nastiness. That’s more of a “this is what happens when new tech gets popular” than a “VR Chat is bad” thing, but it’s important for people to see it happen in real time, on a platform that’s more forward-facing and easier to understand than operating system updates or CPU chips. As technology grows more advanced and more importantly, interactive, safety vigilance will only become more important.
The other recent event saw a player have an actual seizure in the middle of a chat room. At first, players weren't sure if it was real, due to VR Chat's usual humor, trolling and other oddities, but reality sunk in soon enough. The player started exhibiting bizarre movement, translated through their avatar, and their irregular breathing was audible through their VR headset. Rather than panicking, nearby players sprang into action to help as they could, giving the player virtual space, and even leading more visually complicated avatars away and out of sight. Some even contacted moderators, and started asking questions of the developers regarding what could be done to help more in this kind of situation.
To put it simply, VR Chat is exactly what it sounds like – a new chatroom software made for VR headsets. But in practice, it’s a new hub for online culture to grow, develop, and disseminate. It’s a vehicle for new kinds of experiences that raise new questions, sometimes for old problems. From dealing with trolling and racism to figuring out how developers and communities can respond to a health event during virtual interaction, this hot new communication tool is potentially writing new chapters in that messy book we’re all reading called Life.