VRChat is a popular and free multiplayer online experience. It’s only accessible via Steam, and only if you own a virtual reality headset – specifically, the HTC Vive or Oculus Rift – but despite its currently limited audience, VRChat is a transformative platform like nothing you’ve ever experienced. Calling it a video game would be a wild understatement.
In the simplest terms I can muster, VRChat is a surreal virtual meeting space that lets people socialize, attend events, take classes, create art, play games, perform for large crowds, and explore virtual environments – all from the comfort of their own homes.
In the same way that AOL and Yahoo chat rooms gave the world a peak into some of best and worst corners of the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s, VRChat has become the new virtual Wild West in 2018.
Users claim to have found a community unparalleled by real life there, and a surprisingly large group of people have come out saying that VRChat has saved their lives, as they battle with mental health issues like loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Unfortunately, like other places on the internet, harassment, trolling and hacking are present here, too.
Above all else, VRChat's rapid growth in users and functionality are unprecedented, and we are only just beginning to see its potential.
Here's what it's like to use VRChat:
To truly understand what it's like to experience a community entirely based in virtual reality, one must first be willing to leave the physical, biological world behind.
In VRChat, you'll be entering a world where cartoon characters walk through the streets; where portals can transport you from a dungeon in a medieval castle to the holodeck of a spaceship, then to the set the popular 90s sitcom "Seinfeld," in a matter of seconds.
Here are some examples of various playable stages in VRChat.
In this world, the limits of physics, logic and science are no match for the human imagination, which runs rampant with little regard for consequences.
The makers of VRChat make a free software development kit (SDK) available to the public, so that anyone with enough computer storage and a handful of YouTube tutorials can create their own in-game avatars and stages.
Thanks to the SDK, much of the virtual world in VRChat is user-generated, and awash with plenty of pop culture references.
There is a downside, however: Since so much of the game design is crowdsourced, and since VR headset controllers and other hardware varies so widely, the graphics in VRChat do not compare to modern AAA video games. To be frank, navigating through the VRChat universe feels like walking through a bizarre, stiff, 8-bit dream.
But what the platform lacks in design chops, it makes up for in community engagement.
VRChat is a social platform at its core. You have a virtual body in a virtual space, but you're encouraged to meet new people and hang out with your friends here. You can talk through a microphone, and hear your friends through your computer's speaker, or a headset.
Not long after logging into a public server, you'll quickly encounter any number of other players — to you, though, they'll look like anime girls, superheroes, Star Wars characters, weird altered versions of Sonic the Hedgehog, or any other cartoon that someone managed to recreate in the SDK and make into an avatar, like Spongebob Squarepants.
These avatars are one of the most recognizable features of VRChat, partly because many players like to roleplay as the character that they've chosen to display, by doing an impression of their voice and interacting with others the way that character would.
Think cosplay, but in virtual reality.
Depending on the sophistication of the avatar and the controller, some players can make their avatars perform hand gestures, facial expressions, and even virtually touch other avatars.
Here's an example of one popular streamer, called Nagzz21, as he interacts with another player who's chosen a Pikachu-like avatar:
SO, WHAT DO YOU DO?
The user-generated nature of VRChat means the possibilities are virtually endless.
The most recent update to the game added karaoke, bowling, Capture the Flag, and other games. It also added stages built to look like conference rooms, dance clubs, and art studios.
VRChat's website has an official calendar that lists the public events that take place in the various virtual rooms. Users can request to host a one-time event like a meet-up, or an ongoing series of events like an open-mic night or Japanese language class, meditation session or improv showcase. All these examples are real, virtual events hosted in VRChat, on the calendar right now.
When you're not learning Japanese or perfecting your virtual yoga flow, you're more than welcome to roam the various stages, interacting with other users and hopefully making some friends along the way.
This video shows a handful of users bowling in VRChat:
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING
VRChat has been available to the public since February 2017, but in that short amount of time, many players have said it's changed their lives by offering an alternative to the social pressures and physical challenges of real life.
The subreddit dedicated to VRChat often gets comments like the one pictured, posted by reddit user NikinCZ.
In a private message, NikinCZ expanded on his experience with VRChat to Business Insider:
I am an introvert and socially awkward person. I have trouble striking up conversations with strangers or people, that I just barely know... Because of this, I have trouble meeting new people and making friends... In VRChat, I don't have much fear of embarrassing myself and don't double think everything I say; I act a bit differently. I get to talk about more different topics with a lot of different people in VRChat, which makes me feel much less isolated.
NikinCZ's feelings are shared by a surprising number of VRChat users. The official VRChat Twitter account often retweets similar comments.
Here are a few examples:
I wanted to thank every 5,167 and many more who have helped my dreams come true. This means so much to me... Before I started VRChat, having a YouTube channel where people enjoy my videos was just a dream. VRChat really does feel like home.
— Fiji (@FijiVR) January 19, 2018
@VRChatNet I just want to thank the people who made VRChat. This platform has inspired me to become a content creator. Being able to communicate with people you don't know, has helped me overcome my introverted personality. I want to say, thank you from the bottom of my heart. <3
— Jelee Melee (@onsokumaru95) February 17, 2018
@VRChatNet Thank you so much for giving me something I never thought would become a big part of my life. Thank you for taking the time to create such an amazing space for others to get together and talk. But more importantly, thank you so much for giving me the friends I have <3
— WBG KuriGames (@Kurigamesalot) February 27, 2018
WHAT GAME STREAMERS ARE SAYING
Since VR games generally require a very powerful computer and headset setup like the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, VRChat still remains somewhat out of reach for casual gamers.
For those who can't experience VRChat first-hand, video game streamers and YouTubers have helped bring mass awareness to VRChat by recording and posting their adventures through the virtual world.
"What makes VRChat special, through a streamer's perspective, is the real=time unknown and endless content," Twitch streamer Nagzz21 told Business Insider. "With VRChat, you have real people engaging not just with myself but with the others around, all in front of your own audience... Because you are dealing with real people interacting in a virtual environment, you never know what is going to happen next."
Nagzz21 has been posting VRChat-focused YouTube videos for about six months, and says he has been a part of the community since before the game was widely available to the public. He said VRChat has inspired a lot of excitement for how people will connect with each other in the future.
"I read so many comments a day from people who have said the game has changed their lives. The friends they have met, the people that have helped them, and the ways it has cured certain issues such as social anxiety, depression and more. Social VR is the future."
THE SIDE EFFECTS
Like any small, anonymous, and mostly unsupervised online space, abuse is not uncommon on VRChat. And unfortunately, like most video game spaces, that abuse is often pointed toward women and people of color.
In the short time it's been available on Steam, VRChat has already become notorious for a racist meme, virtual groping of female avatars, and simulated child marriage.
Countless users in the subreddit have expressed frustration with the platform's limited privacy features and ability to prevent harassment.
In an open letter to the community, VRChat's developers acknowledged that the number of users and stages has grown so quickly in recent months, their small team has been struggling to keep up with some of the complaints.
"One of the biggest challenges with rapid growth is trying to maintain and shape a community that is fun and safe for everyone," Team VRChat wrote. "We're aware there's a percentage of users that choose to engage in disrespectful or harmful behavior. It is our top priority to address the quality of the VRChat experience, especially for new users, and our team will continue to work toward improving that."
Despite the rapid growth in popularity and sheer scale, VRChat is still technically in early access, meaning the complete game has yet to be made available. The developers explained the game's status in a section of VRChat's Steam description:
VRChat is constantly evolving. We're working tirelessly on the core platform to expand features and tools that allow for deeper creation and enjoyment of VRChat... We have big dreams for Social VR and we want to be at the right level of completion before leaving Early Access. We've not set a time limit on that yet but as we move forward we'll keep everyone updated with our progress.
The VRChat team has also confirmed that the platform will continue to be free after eventually leaving early access, but has offered very few details about the future of the game otherwise.
Recently, the team has unveiled some of the biggest actions yet for battling and preventing abuse, including a new panic button, along with "mute" and "block" features.
The developers consistently encourage users to give feedback and advice via their Reddit and Discord forums because above all, they wrote on their Steam profile, "We are formed in large part by our community. We are creating the platform but it is our users that bring it to life."