VRChat is the social experience that tells players that it’s just a game, but the gameplay itself is so much more than that. This is a VR adventure that displays classic mores of the carnivalesque and applauds the death of the real. Using a large library of mostly player-created content, this virtual reality universe harkens back to the “wild west” days of online chat rooms, unregulated forums, and avatar-based messaging during the advent of the internet. Players embody countless physical appearances as they make their way through various worlds, chatting, high fiving, singing, dancing, making crude gestures, laughing, and, most importantly, changing themselves along the way. Through the process of forsaking the real, players shed some of the societal pressures of daily life in order to explore a new reality in which they feel more free to express themselves.
Part One: The Philosophy
Part One is going to get a little wordy, so hang on to your hats and get ready for a crash course in the philosophy of linguistic semiotics. It’s important, I promise.
After studying writings on abject art and celebrations, writer and professor Robert Stam concluded that there are thirteen steps people take to celebrate a ritual known among philosophers as The Carnival, during which participants blur or entirely erase the lines of social acceptability and express themselves in ways otherwise deemed irreverent. This is a celebration to rejoice in individuality without the worry or shame of being judged by the world. A prime example in the U.S. is Mardi Gras. There are many differing viewpoints on this style of celebration. Some people view it as a heinous, hedonistic act of revelry while others see it as a chance for celebratory catharsis. Because Carnival traditions coincide with the experience of VRChat, there is a hostility and controversy that is often associated with its use.
To take a step back, it is important first and foremost to understand how real life humans feel the ability to release in such an ethereal, disconnected way. The concept of rejecting reality and instead embracing simulation is key to this. Jean Baudrillard's writing on the “precession of simulacra” suggests to us that Western society isn’t actually real, at least not in the way we would normally think of it. He theorizes that we are so caught up in consuming, it has changed the way we function as a society. According to this theory, we are not defined by our physical world anymore, but instead defined by the items we invest in. Our individual lives can be categorized into four degrees of separation from reality.
The first level of Baudrillard’s semiotic categorization states that the basic level of reality, simply, is the Real. This represents the literal, the original; in other words, the physical world in its most basic sense.
After we have made the decision to move away from the real, we enter different states of simulation, the first and least severe of which is the Counterfeit. In this state, there is a strong, undeniable connection to the real world, so undeniable that it may not be immediately discernible from the real. An example of this could be reading a book, watching a movie, looking at a piece of art, or playing a game for a short amount of time.
In the third level of precession, twice removed from reality, there is a state of Production. The originality found in life only matters when everyone agrees it matters. Otherwise, there is no symbolic or functional relationship between the original “real” thing and its new status in Production. In this state, we are being actively marketed to, so that we consume more and invest more of our lives in the products being sold. Outside forces are telling us what our lives should be like, and we clamor to make it so.
The last state is what Baudrillard considered the death of reality, which is pure simulation. At this point we aren’t sure what is reality and we can’t be bothered to care. Simulation means that what is real or not real simply doesn’t matter to those experiencing it.
Even though that sounds a bit frightening, I think this last statement is absolutely vital to understanding why the carnivalesque rituals that players generate inside VRChat can be executed so seamlessly in the game’s current form. The participants in the game are very simply not concerned with whether or not their virtual forms are accurately representing their physical realities. This means they are more freed from stigma, and can fling themselves into the traditions associated with the carnivalesque.
Part Two: The Expression
There is a burning question that must be brought to our attention. Much of carnival, as it is defined, is about celebrating the self. So if users of VRChat aren’t using their real identities or physical appearances, how can they truly be part of the force of carnival? The answer is surprisingly simple. By using a rapidly changing and expanding avatar system they can better express themselves as human beings through the lens of whatever avatar suits their interior needs. This is a hallmark of carnival: anti-classical, atypical aesthetics, perpetual “crowning and uncrowning” to celebrate change and hope, and cross dressing as a release from the burden of traditional sexual roles. Each player in the universe of VRChat is free to change their physical form as many times as they wish, and the options seem nearly limitless thanks to the SDK that allows players and independent developers to submit avatars, props, and worlds to the VR experience. As such, players are able to choose forms that reflect their inner selves instead of being forced into their outer realities. This is why we see so many different avatars running around our Twitch steams, YouTube videos, and memes. For some people, avatars change with their mood or with the fleeting trend, while others create their ideal character to live inside for the long haul. Even that choice gives us insight to the deeply individualistic nature VRChat enables.
You’ve seen the memes. You know. When searching for VRChat, its probably close to impossible to avoid the many articles advertising the cancerous atmosphere that resides within the game. This is because two more modes of carnival are displayed for all to see and are the most easily observable from outside the sphere of virtual reality: the rejection of social decorum, release from etiquette, politeness, and good manners alongside the valorization of the obscene and nonsensical. The main rejection of VRChat by the majority populace is caused by the fact that people using it are allowed to forget their “goodness.” Racist and sexist jokes are laughed at without shame or rebuke and “tribes” of certain avatars band together for the sake of laughter at the absurd and the obscene.
This brings us around to other mores of the VRChat community, which are viewed as harassment and sexism, often rightly. Female avatars, regardless of the gender of the user, are sexualized and harassed in a number of ways. Other nonbinary, robotic, and anthropomorphic avatars often exude very weird sexuality. This is actually another sacred ritual of carnival celebrations,which encourages participants to celebrate the grotesque, excessive body in all of its various parts. Carnival goers celebrate the different-ness of their bodies and rejoice in all of its ugly or glammed-up glory, which obviously disturbs people who aren’t “in on” it.
The things that are not always seen from the outside are some of the most joyous things about VRChat, and are simultaneously some of the best things about carnivalesque experiences. In one case, a writer for Vice stumbled upon Alphonse from Fullmetal Alchemist simply sitting alone in the middle of the Stone Flower Shrine from Nier: Automata, enjoying the peace and tranquility. In another, motion tracking on a man having a seizure caused an entire world to stop joking around with each other so that they could help him. In many ways, the community comes together with the knowledge that they are some weird people all trying to enjoy this weird thing they’ve created together and their bond is only stronger for it. They demonstrate some of the most wonderful feelings the carnivalesque participants bring to their festivities: to subvert the power of the real world, to have a feeling of union with the community, and to recognize that the spaces inhabited by carnivalesque activities are sacred.
Part Three: The Lifestyle
“You cannot always live in the carnival; its energies push toward chaos, and one needs order in life… Carnival is the antidote to the over-ordered cultural experience,” states professor and artist John Dobson. I think this is critical to upholding everything that I personally consider good about VRChat. As the thirteenth rule of carnival states, the experience is a participatory spectacle that erases the boundaries between spectator and performer. While VRChat is a wonderful, immersive escape from the monotony and suppression of daily life, please, please don’t live there. Just visit once in a while and enjoy the spectacle of the self.
Author’s Note: This article was adapted from a term paper written recently during a college class on semiotics in mass media. Readings for this course that were applied in this article included "Simulations" by Jean Baudrillard and "Subversive Pleasures: Bakhtin, Cultural Criticism, and Film" by Robert Stam.
Alexander, Julia. “VRChat is a bizarre phenomenon that has Twitch, YouTube obsessed.” Polygon, Polygon, 22 Dec. 2017, www.polygon.com/2017/12/22/16805452/vrchat-steam-vive-oculus-twitch-youtube.
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. New York: Semiotext Columbia University, 1983.
Dobson, John. “Module 11: Post-Structuralism: Mikhail Bakhtin, Dialogism and Carnival.” Academy of Art University: Semiotics LA435.
Gault, Matthew. “VRs Hit Social App Is a Dank Meme-Soaked Chat Room.” Motherboard, Vice, 14 Jan. 2018, motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/wjpbpq/vrchat-review.
Stam, Robert. Subversive pleasures: Bakhtin, cultural criticism, and film. Baltimore; Md.: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1996.
Images used are public domain and/or from the VRChat Facebook page.