I used to dream of cyberspace. Inspired by the speculative fiction of William Gibson, Cyberpunk role-playing and movies like The Lawnmower Man, I imagined falling down a digital rabbit hole into a world of light, color and geometric shapes. A world where I’d interact with fellow travelers decked out in wild and creative custom avatars. Massive online social space VRChat is a lot like the electronic playground I imagined, only completely ridiculous.
VRChat, now available for free on Steam for PC and virtual reality headsets, is an online community where players can hang out, chat, play games and create their own virtual spaces. It’s basically what happens when the enigmatic cyberspace we imagined in the ‘80s and ‘90s meets reality. Back then we thought that net dwellers, outfitted with ability to be anyone and create anything, would build something deep, profound and meaningful. Instead, I’m dressed up like Kamen Rider 2 and hanging out with a horde of anime-girl avatars at a recreation of a Chuck E. Cheese’s.
Searching for “VRChat” on YouTube gives one a pretty good idea of what to expect in Graham Gaylor and Jesse Joudrey’s online world. It’s people milling about in online rooms, generally doing or saying silly things. They laugh, they shout, they joke. It’s what we’ve come to expect wherever people assemble in large numbers under the umbrella of internet anonymity. They get stupid. Which is great. Stupid is a lot of fun.
Gibson and his fellow cyberpunk pioneers envisioned cyberspace as a dark, digital layer laid over the real world. Shielded by anonymity and clad in super-powered skin, hackers (or deckers or whatever) would jack into cyberspace to do some pretty cool stuff. They’d peddle information in virtual back alleys, hack into colorfully-rendered corporate servers, dodging or battling dangerous security programs in real-time. They’d explore the mysteries of the web, the dark corners where advanced artificially-intelligent constructs held sway.
But let’s be real. Hackers do not need a resource-hogging virtual world to hack. Clandestine dealings are much easier to perform face-to-face or in a text-based setting. And no corporation is ever going to spend serious resources to make their internet security measures look like a horde of polygonal dragons.
But say you and your friends want to gather together as a swarm of Ugandan Knuckles and playfully harass a Dragon Ball character around a campfire. In that case, cyberspace is the place to be.
As removed as it may be from the dark and gritty virtual worlds we pictured back in the day, VRChat still manages to feel very “old internet.” It’s rough. It’s glitchy. It’s wild and untamed. It’s a place where seasoned veterans (or as seasoned as one can get in the year since the program launched) decked out in wild custom constructs mingle with neophytes sporting stock avatars.
Those “old internet” feelings also stir while exploring the countless worlds players have already created during VRChat’s relatively short period of existence. If you want to find something cool to see or someplace fun to hang out, you’ve got to go look for it. It reminds me of the pre-Facebook and Twitter days, before the most interesting bits of the internet started showing up on feeds.
Opening a portal to a new VRChat world feels like the beginning of an adventure. A Kamen Rider walks into a bar.
He heads upstairs, where a karaoke stage is set up. His sudden appearance frightens a user wearing a Unity Chan avatar off the stage, disappearing to parts unknown before he can apologize. Feeling akward, the Kamen Rider opens the world menu, closes his eyes and clicks on a random spot.
Well, this looks familiar. The Kamen Rider watches other people drive about the lawsuit-inviting track for a bit, wanting to get into a kart himself but not wanting to make a fool of himself trying to figure out how. He returns to the hub, where he finishes off his visit stalking a wild bandicoot.
The possibilities are endless, and not all of them are silly. In the same campfire area where the Knuckles army took on Vegeta, I listened to a woman with an amazing voice softly singing in a language I didn’t understand. It was a beautiful little moment. She was probably just AFK doing the laundry or something, but dammit, I had feels.
VRChat is not the gleaming chrome cyber-frontier of my dreams, and that’s fine. The real world is dark and gritty enough, and that calls for an escape into something lighter. As a wise man once said, sometimes you’ve got to dare to be stupid. VRChat dares.
VRChat is available as a free download on Steam. Despite the name, you don’t need VR gear to play. So go play.