Over the space of just one hour, Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray was chased by wannabe Nazis, asked for photos of her feet and mansplained by a rat.
As a staunch Black Mirror fan, you might expect me to be wary of new technology. You’d be wrong: I’m an avid gamer, and pretty much plugged into the internet on a 24/7 basis (a digital addiction which I recently tried to cure with a dose of ‘slow living’ in the Welsh countryside). And so, when my friends revealed that they’d dropped a cool £500 on their very own HTC Vive, I was round their house like a shot.
Just like my pals, I’d seen the adverts for this “first-of-its-kind virtual reality system”, and was desperate to pull on that headset (complete with sci-fi style visor). I wanted to “be visually, physically and emotionally amazed by new virtual worlds”, and I wasn’t disappointed: the system really did leave me feeling visually, physically and emotionally amazed. However, I came out feeling exhausted, too. And my fatigue was almost entirely due to several strange encounters inside a virtual reality chatroom.
The HTC Vive is arguably one of the most popular virtual reality headsets on the market. According to a recent Steam hardware survey, a whopping 40.62% people said it was their most used VR headset (other than the Oculus Rift, no other headset came close to breaking 10%).
It’s easy to see why. The system’s 110-degree field of view and 2160 x 1200 OLED screen gives you incredible, realistic graphics in your full field of view, which makes for a seriously mesmerising experience. Case in point? I used the system to play a skiing game, and was absolutely blown away – so much so that I spent much of my time spinning around in a circle and cooing over the snowy mountains and pine-capped forests stretching out as far as the eye could see.
How does it do this? Well, the HTC Vive uses two wall-mounted sensors that allow for one-to-one tracking over a 15’x15’ area, which means that the game maps your movements and adjusts the visuals into a truly immersive experience. It also, somewhat handily, comes up with a warning whenever you’re about to walk into something or someone – something which I definitely needed when fighting in the cartoonish gladiator pits of Gorn (I almost took my boyfriend’s head off at one point).
There are more than enough VR games to get stuck into. You can have a bash at archery, or Beat Saber (essentially a dance mat-style game, with added lightsabers), or deep sea diving. You can fly an airplane, or do battle with aliens, or dismantle a bomb against the clock. And, just like any ‘normal’ gaming device, the Vive allows you the chance to leave the real world behind and immerse yourself in countless new ones (albeit with an added dash of motion sickness, for those not used to the headset).
The real fun, though, comes from dipping your toe into VR Chat – aka the virtual reality chatroom frequented by some 2 million users from around the world.
The creators of VR Chat, naturally, have listed off its many, many plus points on their website. It allows you to, using “full body avatars with lip sync and eye tracking [to] interact with people all over the world”. To “create long lasting friendships”. To “express yourself”. To help you “overcome your social anxiety”. To, above all else, “play and have fun”.
And, for the most part, people do. They do play and have fun. I’ve seen them do it: they’re in there hanging out in karaoke rooms, or taking part in relay races, or ordering ‘pints’ at the pub. All sorts of good and wholesome fun is happening in VR Chat. Even more wonderful, though, is the fact that many users have found VR Chat to be an incredibly positive forum, insisting that it has given them the opportunity to be more vocal or extroverted than they would in real life. They are building up their confidence and their conversational skills. They are learning important life skills.
But, while these people make up the majority of the VR Chat community, there are a few bad eggs in there, too. And, as is so often sadly the case, they tend to stink out the rest of the hen house.
Take, for instance, the ‘Snickers Witch’.
During our first tentative foray into the world of VR Chat, we came across an elderly woman – or, y’know, an avatar that looked like an elderly woman, but sounded suspiciously like a teenage boy. Dressed all in black, she stood out in the vivid greens and primary colours of the ‘hangout’ we were based in for that session (there are over 50,000 ‘worlds’ created for people to visit in VR Chat) – and so, in an attempt to be friendly, we decided to strike up a conversation.
“Snickers,” she responded mournfully. My friend, who was manning the headset at that time, searched everywhere for a chocolate bar (we were stood in a virtual supermarket at the time), and handed it to her. Or, at least, he tried to. She refused to interact, allowing the bar to drop between them onto the floor.
“Snickers,” she repeated. But then, slowly, that insistent word changed into something far more controversial. “Snickers. Sniggers. N*****s. N*****s. N*****s.”
Obviously, we were horrified and hightailed it out of that world, jumping straight into another. As time passed, we began to forget about that disturbing encounter. So much so that, when it came to my turn to wear the headset, I was feeling pretty damn confident. After all, I’d seen the guys enjoy conversations with strangers, navigate horror mazes, and solve murder mysteries. I’d even seen them make ‘friends’ with some of the people they’d spoken to. What would VR Chat, then, have in store for me?
To find out, I selected a suitably whimsical world – an opulent train, done up in the same rich burgundies and golds of the Hogwarts Express – and charged in. I was surrounded by other people: one, who had adopted the dragon from Spirited Away as their avatar, stood watching the rain hit the glass of the train window as we sped through space. He shook his head mournfully at me when I attempted conversation, so I gave up and wandered along the carriage. When I opened the door to the end of the train, though, I was stunned into silence. Because there, glaring back at me, sat a small group of WW2-era Nazis.
For a moment, nobody said a word. Then, as they started to rise out of their seats, I decided it was time to make my getaway.
“Erm, sorry,” I said, backing out through the door. “Wrong carriage.”
“Get her!” screamed one of them, and they began pursuing me at speed through the carriage.
“Help me,” I called to the dragon, who was still stood watching the rain on the glass.
“I can’t,” he responded dolefully. “I’m too sad.”
Just like that, I remembered that I didn’t have to run: this was virtual reality, and the Nazis couldn’t really get me. So I fumbled with the controller, selected a world at random, and stepped into a new location – one which I hoped they wouldn’t follow me into.
It was a pub. A very British, albeit very surreal, pub. Behind the bar was a robot, serving drinks and hamburgers and helpful nuggets of advice – and he was adeptly assisted in his task by a black-and-white Goofy of the silent Disney movie era. These guys were great: they were creative, and imaginative, and fully intent on keeping to character. Indeed, Goofy never once spoke: just like movies of old, he relied on exaggerated gestures and mimed expressions to communicate.
Not everyone in the pub, though, was using VR Chat in the way I had hoped. Around the corner, near the leather booths, was a group of naked anime girls – or, more accurately, a group of men whom had selected naked anime girls as their avatars. All of them were stood in front of the pub’s full-length mirror. All of them were staring intently at their reflections. And all of them were running their hands up and down themselves as they did so, making strange mewing sounds of pleasure as they did so.
“Great,” I muttered unhappily, turning on my heel and heading back to the bar. As I made chit-chat with the robot landlord, though, a small panda clocked my voice (high-pitched – bordering on squeaky – and annoyingly feminine) and doubled back on himself to say hello.
“Which headset are you using?” he asked me. Before I could even form the words ‘HTC Vive’, though, he added: “Do you have any photos of your feet? I’ll pay.”
“Me too,” mumbled another voice in agreement.
I was almost grateful when, with a crash and a bang, the Nazis I had encountered earlier staged an invasion on the pub… with a custom-built tank.
“Heil Hitler,” the quintet screeched in faux German accents, before inexplicably blasting some bagpipe music out at full volume.
“This is a British pub,” I informed them snippily. “And that is a British instrument. What are you trying to pull here?”
They ignored me, obviously, and continued to shout about their allegiance to Hitler and their plans to “occupy” the UK. So I, desperate to give VR Chat one last go in earnest, scrolled through the many worlds on offer (pointedly ignoring the one with the giant bed and mass pillow-fight) and selected a non-threatening nightclub. You know the sort: cheesy music, disco lights and light-up floors… and, somewhat randomly, hot tubs dotted around in the shadows.
It was an interesting place, no doubt about it. The avatars here were less overtly sexy or offensive: people took on the appearance of tiny kittens, or sparkling fairies, or outsized cuddly toys. And so, forgetting I was mic’d up and that everyone in the room could hear me, I exclaimed “oh, a rat!” as one wandered past.
The rodent paused, backtracked and peered suspiciously up into my rotting face (naturally, I had selected a zombie avatar for my virtual expedition).
“I’m not a rat,” it said bluntly. “Are you a girl?”
“Yikes, I’m sorry,” I replied. “It’s just that you look an awful lot like a rat, is all.”
“I’m not a rat,” it said again. “Are you a girl?”
“I’m a woman,” I corrected him. And that was all it took to open the floodgates, because the rat – presumably so entranced by the idea of speaking to an actual female – could not stop himself from explaining the concept of virtual reality to me. From telling me how to use the HTC Vive (which, remember, I was already using at the time). From listing off all the best updates and software and games available. From telling me how to hold the controllers, how to tighten the headset, how to add him as a friend. He really, really wanted me to add him as a friend.
“Just click the big button,” he said s-l-o-w-l-y, to ensure I didn’t miss out on any of his top tips. “And then search for my username.”
The rat spelled out his username for me, despite the fact I could see it on the screen. And, when I thanked him politely for his help and attempted to walk away from the conversation, he followed me. Seemingly pinned to my left foot at all times, the rodent escorted me around the nightclub, keeping up a stream of mansplaining advice on gaming the whole time. He never stopped to take a breath. And he kept on and on and on insisting that I become his friend, despite me telling him that it wasn’t actually my HTC and that… well, that I didn’t want to be his friend. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to become anyone’s friend after less than 60 seconds of conversation, and even less so when that conversation is almost entirely one-sided.
Finally, I was forced to admit defeat. Myself and my friend quietly switched places, so that he was wearing the HTC headset instead of me. And all it took to deter the mansplaining rat was a few short sentences in a deeper baritone (“your voice has changed”): weirdly enough, he didn’t seem to want to be friends with a male gamer.
While it is difficult to find exact figures, it seems women are something of a rarity in VR Chat at the moment. And, judging by online reactions, I’m far from the first to feel uncomfortable in the virtual boy’s club.
“[I saw] a bunch of dudes with a posse of hot anime girls, the majority of whom seem to be boys using voice changers,” one woman noted on Reddit, going on to explain that she has seen these players “grope the VR curves” of the female avatars and “harass them” with “sexual jokes”.
“I get that this is ‘roleplay’ but that doesn’t change the fact that all this sexualised content leaves a nasty taste in my mouth,” she added.
Another shared a video of their own VR Chat experiences, which saw a number of male avatars audibly scream or let out a whoop whenever they realised they were talking to “a real girl”. Later in the footage, though, she is repeatedly approached by a threatening (I can’t believe I’m writing this) Emperor Penguin.
“We’ll fuck her together,” the penguin can be heard telling another male avatar, gesturing in her direction. And, when he finds the feeling is far from mutual, he threatens to “slap her face” and dubs her an “ugly fucking bitch”, before chasing her around the virtual bar.
Of course, VR Chat isn’t anywhere near as bad as the virtual reality experiences detailed in Black Mirror (not yet, anyway). Indeed, the benefits of this hugely complex forum should not go unrecognised. After all, as RuPaul (of RuPaul’s Drag Race) famously once pointed out, ‘when you become the image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you’ll ever do’. What he means by this, I think, is that we all have personal qualities that, despite being very much a part of us, so rarely come to light in everyday situations. Qualities like deadly wit or risk-taking courage aren’t encouraged in urban work culture where everyone is expected to grease the industry wheels and be kind of OK to hang with, but not too wild. But, in a world like VR Chat, all of your extreme qualities are far more likely to blossom thanks to the surreal and impossible situations you’re likely to find yourself in.
But, while VR Chat’s anonymity grants users the freedom to take on new personas, explore new worlds, and even trial new personalities, this same anonymity can, and does, cultivate negative environments (just look at the popular ‘Ugandan Knuckles’ avatar, which perpetuates deeply racist and sexist stereotypes).
At the time of writing this article, VR Chat remains a largely unmoderated forum, which means that pretty much anything goes. As such, people are interacting with the space very differently. The result? A world with almost too much flexibility: unlike a game, there are no goals to be met – and, unlike social media, there are no restrictions or moderators to worry about.
The solution is overwhelming in its simplicity: users need to hold themselves accountable for their own words and actions. Because, while the space they traverse is fictional, little much else about VR Chat is: the conversations and the relationships that can be built within it are very, very real. And they can negatively or positively impact another person’s day in a very real way, too.
So, to echo the lessons we learned in the playground: if you can’t say anything nice to your new VR Chat friends, don’t say anything at all. And please, please don’t ask them for photos of their feet. It really isn’t cool.