It was in the depths of the Mickey Mouse dungeon, the music of the Mouse’s rap album coursing through my headphones, that I decided VRChat was brilliant. I had spent ten minutes wandering through a hellish landscape of Mickey Mouse’s worst moments. Mickey trash memes lined the walls. The tempo of the rap music changed at random. It was an assault on my senses from every angle unlike anything I’d experienced before.
It was awful but I kind of liked it. That’s VRChat in a nutshell.
VRChat is a hot new app blowing up the charts on the digital marketplace Steam. It’s a free chat room app catering to people with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. Users hop into a virtual world and, with a frew flicks of the wrist, can explore an infinite expanse of user-generated rooms and interact with thousands of other people. It’s an open source wonderland—the software development kit is available on the developer's website—where players are free to craft avatars and rooms as high tech or low class as their imaginations allow.
Since the new year, VRChat has gone from a few hundred concurrent users to more than 15,000, according to Steam Charts. According to Steam Spy, on Monday, it recently hit 1.5 million installs. That’s small change for most big Steam releases, but an incredible accomplishment for an app that’s kind of ugly and caters to a small market—people with VR headsets.
You may not have used the app, or even heard of it, but you’ve probably seen it’s breakout meme—Ugandan Knuckles. Knuckles is a red echidna from the Sonic: The Hedgehog video game franchise. Some VRChat players enjoy dressing themselves as a malformed version of Knuckles, running around looking for female avatars, clicking their tongues, and asking everyone around them, “do you know the way?” in an African accent.
If they find a woman, the Knuckles swarm her, call her a queen, and spit on other players while calling them false queens. It’s a vile and racist meme elevated by YouTubers such as PewDiePie. Polygon called the meme problematic, which is putting it mildly. Even if the meme weren’t racist, it would still be obnoxious. Every room I wandered through in VRChat was overtaken by little wall-eyed echidnas spitting and clicking. Despite these VR shitposters, I still enjoyed my time using the app.
The ability of this meme to leap beyond the confines of VRChat and on to Twitter (mostly via DrekTheWiz's Twitch clips), is one reason it has become so popular, but there a few others: it brings up nostalgia for a wilder era of internet interaction, its open source, and you don’t need a VR headset to play. I don’t own a headset and didn’t use one when traveling VRChat’s surreal landscape, but I still had an interesting experience.
I won’t say I had a fun time, though it was fun sometimes. The chaos that makes it so appealing also opens it up to all the classic abuse and bullshit that’s plagued the internet forever. Ugandan Knuckles is everywhere of course, but I also saw a dick. People asked me for sexual favors. It’s a surreal experience that brings out all the internet’s baser instincts.
Logging into VRChat the first time feels like the beginning of every cyberpunk horror story I read or watched in the 1990s, right down to the bad graphics. It’s easy to open up a menu and travel through dozens of user generated islands, cafes, comedy clubs, dungeons, and forests.
I moved through a portal that took me to an island full of Knuckles running between my legs while they clicked and asked me if I knew the way. From there, I took a portal to a changing room full of free to use meme-based avatars. It was here that I adopted the persona I’d use for the rest of my journey—a 2-D cutout of Ben Swolo.
From the changing room I traveled to a recreation of an intersection in a typical Japanese city. The other avatars there gathered around me, mocked my physique and asked me for various sexual favors. I turned around and saw a weird blocky avatar with its dick out and a racial epithet written across its chest.
Crowded by weirdos, I left the intersection and plowed through an exact recreation of the Stone Flower Shrine from Nier Automata . An Alphonse avatar from the Fullmetal Alchemist anime sat silently staring at the flowers. I jumped from that room to the aforementioned Mickey Mouse maze, then to a cheap looking Chuck E Cheese restaurant where non-player Chuck E Cheese avatars danced in front of a screen playing Chuck E Cheese videos.
An hour later, I was sitting in a theater with a bunch of Ronald McDonald’s and a tank watching the George Romero version of Dawn of the Dead. The tank kept talking in Russian and I sushed it so I could watch the movie. That’s when I knew I needed to log out. I’d lost hours of my life immersed in this weird VR world and I wasn’t even wearing a headset. The experience was addictive.
"VRChat seems to be taking off due to three factors that contributed to a perfect storm of viral growth,” Wagner James Au, author of The Making of Second Life and the social VR blog New World Notes, told me over email.
“[It] lets users upload their own avatars via a Unity SDK [a popular and accessible game making tool], and has a basic physics engine,” he said. “[It] can be accessed without having to wear a VR headset, enabling more gamers to join in on the fun. YouTube and Twitch streamers discovered this potential for freeform, grabass anarchy and went nuts creating lots of VRChat-based videos that quickly went viral.”
Au pointed out that the other social VR platforms aren’t as easy to develop for, lack physics engines, and often require a headset to use. "Many also seem to be putting the cart before the horse,” he said. “Carefully laying down an economic infrastructure when there’s hardly anyone there to use the economy.”
He pointed to Second Life developer Linden Lab’s Sansar as an example of another social VR app. It's developing high quality movie tie-ins and corporate education software such as recreation’s of sets from the upcoming Ready Player One movie. There's also High Fidelity, a VR program focusing on high quality images and blockchain backed market.
“Most gamers don’t care about all that,” Au said. “They just want to jump in immediately, start playing around with the system, cause and enjoy chaos, and have fun with each other.”
Chaos is one of the best parts of VRChat, but not everyone is having fun. The openness of the platform has allowed a peculiar kind of internet-born racism and misogyny to flourish. Women on the platform have reported experiencing a level of abuse sadly typical of online video games and social media platforms. VR game designer Katie Chironis uploaded a two minute video to Twitter showing how she was swamped and harassed by users after speaking out loud in a crowded area of VRChat.
“People know that 'in theory' abuse happens more often to women and people of color, but this is what it looks like,” Chironis wrote on Twitter. VRChat followed up with her after she posted about her experience and it has since added a feature that automatically mutes everyone that a user isn’t friends with. It’s a stop gap measure for online abuse, but at least VRChat is acknowledging that it's a problem and doing something about it.
Walking through the various McDonald’s restaurants, Cafe Leblanc from Persona 5, and Dalaran from World of Warcraft was a blast. Dodging weirdos dressed as Knuckles asking me to take them to their queen and dropping portals to “Uganda” was not. Like AOL chat rooms in the mid 1990s, VRChat exemplifies a wild and chaotic time on the internet, a time some people are nostalgic for. Right now, social VR experiences are the wild west of the internet, one of those weird unregulated spaces where no one is quite sure what will happen. It won’t last, but it’ll be both fun and miserable while it does.