As COVID-19 puts our social lives on an indefinite pause (unlike whatever show we’re streaming), the realisation that it’ll be a while before we head out to an all-night rave is now hitting us. Experts speculate that we’re stuck with social distancing norms for at least a year or two.When real life is subjected to restrictive boundaries, virtual reality swoops in to sidestep them. Over the last decade, we’ve all adapted to existing as online versions of ourselves through social media. But now, social networks are evolving to keep up with the times, especially as the pandemic pushes people to dedicate more time to their online lives. The internet is littered with livestreams, cloud-based clubs and interactive video games that carve out a parallel online universe to teleport to, all while your ass stays glued to the couch.
From the Tribeca Film Festival to Burning Man, we’re seeing routinely scheduled social interaction shapeshift into online entities, even at the cost of losing their exclusivity to make them more accessible. But while it’s easy to stumble upon an avalanche of livestream sets on YouTube or Instagram, as well as get into the most exclusive Zoom private party if you try hard enough, these options eventually start to feel a bit flat. As we begin to experience ‘Zoom fatigue’ and find it difficult to stay connected even with internet access, these strange times call for something far more immersive than two-dimensional videos can offer: virtual social networks, including video games that emulate their processes. It’s as simple as downloading an application or logging onto a website on your phone or laptop. Even though platforms like Second Life do offer the augmented reality experience through VR headsets, this special gear isn’t a necessity to use the platform. And this all-area access to once-exclusive events is going to change the way we interact with each other forever.While virtual networks like Second Life and IMVU have been on the scene since the early 2000s, the coronavirus lockdowns have helped them level up their users by more than 75 percent. Not only do these networks let you create your own avatar, allowing you to manipulate your appearance, attitude and interests, but they also catapult these online icons into an interactive space where they can easily connect with anyone logged onto the server at the same time as you. These virtual social realities are like crossover episodes between The Sims, The Last of Us and Chatroulette, with each nurturing their engagement through an avatar-influencer culture that goes beyond their virtual galaxy and spills onto social media like Instagram.
Meanwhile, as more people locked indoors log onto gamer-specific streaming platforms and chat rooms like Twitch or Discord and devote their days to online gaming, we’re seeing video games also entertaining an entirely new kind of user. Whether it's Travis Scott launching Astronomical, a video-game concert, on Fortnite, graduations being held on Animal Crossing or the myriad of metaverses that Minecraft has to offer, these online games are becoming increasingly self-sufficient socialising platforms.Though the experiences these games and virtual social networks create vary, they are tied with a common thread: to craft an immersive, inclusive hybrid culture which can bypass all limitations of the real world.
“We have a team of more than 20 people comprising builders, developers, community managers, logistics heads, moderators, and streamers that work 12-hour shifts for a month before we can launch any event,” Jorge Wieneke, an event programmer, music producer from the Philippines who founded the Minecraft-based Club Matryoshka tells VICE. Wieneke and his partner Chris Spoons are the forces responsible for events like the ‘Infinite Summer’, a 24-hour online rave that recreated a dystopian beachside music festival featuring indie artists programmed entirely on the Minecraft gaming platform that was streamed across four continents in a bid to raise funds for COVID-19. “The idea behind our online club was to create a de-colonial, queer-friendly space that breaks away from heteronormative, neurotypical, and white hegemonic expectations of what a venue should be,” explains Spoons, pointing out the ability of the virtual world to rewrite the rules of rave culture. These Manila-based boys are big on collaboration and imbibe this culture of inclusivity over competitiveness in an online space that is slowly becoming overpopulated.
What makes the experience immersive
While Club Matryoshka, like most clubs on the server, dates back to pre-coronavirus times, Minecraft has emerged as an absurdist escape from the rules of social distancing—hosting everything from graduation ceremonies to funerals. But they aren’t the only ones.Milestone moments like college graduations and prom nights are adapting to the times with their own online versions. And this becomes increasingly expansive when you factor in the virtual social networks that have had the last two decades to sort out the kinks and perfect their platform models to brave unexpected situations, the pandemic in this case. Virtual social networks like Second Life, which has seen a 40 percent increase in the amount of time a user stays logged in, are building upon and improving models for their loyal communities that have been in place for years.“The Second Life community, which now has about 900,000 active users monthly, hosts hundreds of events daily,” Ebbe Altberg, the CEO of Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, tells VICE. Altberg reveals that the most regularly attended virtual events include live music performances, shopping fairs, fan fiction conventions, book and poetry readings, academic lectures, fashion shows, and art exhibitions. “Events in Second Life can be held spontaneously or with careful planning,” says Altberg. “We have an events calendar and destination guide that helps the community discover what is happening at any given moment. Inside the Second Life Viewer, many communities also form chat groups that allow for like-minded people to stay informed about the latest events.”
While gaming platforms like Minecraft and Animal Crossing capture the attention of Gen Z, veteran virtual industry players like Second Life attract a millennial audience. “Our most popular event is the Book Club, where we invite real authors for a virtual meet and greet,” says Altberg. Second Life also recently experimented with recreating the movie theatre experience within the virtual universe by hosting a livestream premiere of the Adult Swim series The Shivering Truth within the game.
Meanwhile, IMVU, a virtual social network that lets you create your own avatar to explore infinite metaverses is tailoring their own unique events by hosting fashion-launch fundraisers for the UN, wedding ceremonies and even pride parades to make up for people being confined at home. “What makes these platforms attractive is their interactiveness, coupled with the possibilities they offer to explore things you may not have been able to do in the real-world like fly on a star or ride a unicorn in a free space,” says Lindsay Anne Aamodt, the marketing director at IMVU. “Right now, that possibility is just being able to go out and meet new people, even if it's total strangers sitting beside you in an avatar form.”
“While most events are free to the public, some venues charge rental fees for use of their virtually programmed space while, in some cases, there are admission fees charged to access an event,” explains Altberg, talking about how they capitalise on the FOMO culture by offering people limited-edition experiences in short intervals each time they log in. “Many performers also accept tips using Linden Dollars, the unit of trade in Second Life ($1 = 320 LD).” Similarly, IMVU also monetises their model by charging users who want to host an event a subscription fee to create experiences, design the space and market it through chat rooms, though attending the event is usually free for whoever they invite.These virtual social networks then take things to the next level by offering to convert your currency into a virtual version that then unlocks everything including avatar upgrades, specially-designed outfits, and even pet animals on an online marketplace. Besides these incentives, these virtual worlds foster their own influencer networks, where users can blog through their online avatars and collaborate with brands through animation-based experiences that don’t require outdoor locations or physical products to shoot. They have also regularly been hosting fundraisers to generate economic support for healthcare workers, World Health Organization research and COVID-19 vaccine funds.
How virtual worlds make real money
Meanwhile, Club Matryoshka’s monetary model is donation-based and doesn’t rely on branded marketing campaigns. For them, the current shift to online-based events is an equaliser, making unaffordable event production cheaper and accessible for all. “It eliminates the need for extras like alcohol vendors who care only for their branding, bouncers who enforce gender regressive dress codes and socio-economic exclusivity that allowed only the most elite, who could afford expensive visual and sound systems, being the only ones who can throw parties,” points out Spoons. Interestingly, even as the pandemic plunges the world into an economic recession and rising unemployment rates, gaming software developers and animators are emerging as a covetable profession that could cushion the explosive economic blow.
While it’s fascinating to unravel the world of virtual reality and get into the uniquely captivating experiences they offer, these will also impact our interactions out in the real world, especially as we start spending more time in these surreal worlds—by force or by choice.These platforms were built with an aim to offer socially anxious people a medium to overcome their inhibitions of being in crowded spaces. However, while this has proved to be really helpful for introverts dealing with anxiety and even young adults with autism, getting used to interacting in an online reality could blunt even an extrovert’s ability to make basic conversation without a keyboard. “I think once people get used to interacting through their avatars without any physical stimulus, it’s going to get a lot harder for them to re-immerse themselves in reality when the situation stabilises,” says Aamodt. This could mean that once people grow conditioned to metaverses programmed for commercial use, these online universes can start dictating the way they think and behave, probably even limiting the potential of reality to be as gratifying.
How it’s going to impact our social interactions
However, some studies also make abstract connections between virtual reality and increased empathy. This becomes valid when you consider that by shifting live events that were once unattainable and built around the idea of exclusivity to a space that opens up access for all regardless of their gender, age, amount of disposable income and physical proximity, it creates its own kind of safe space.As Wieneke, who used to programme and promote offline events before the pandemic struck, points out: “I guess it’s different in that you can be a lot more careful about who you’re sharing your spaces with."Follow Shamani Joshi on Instagram.