Finding Community, and Freedom, on the Virtual Dance Floor

On a recent Saturday night, the street outside the nightclub Tube VR looked typical for East London: a boat moored on the canal, trendy retail spaces lining the waterfront, an underpass covered in graffiti. Inside, however, I found myself dancing next to a hedgehog wearing a top hat, an anime nun with an acid green halo and a humanoid fox in hot pants.

Tube VR is a venue and one of the most popular party events on VRChat, a video-game-like social platform that takes place in virtual reality, or V.R., where users can assume fantastical avatars of their own design. When I removed my V.R. headset, I was alone in my bedroom. Wearing it again, I was thrown back into the throbbing heart of a party.

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, regular partygoers flocked to virtual clubs hosted on platforms like Zoom, but since physical venues have reopened, the popularity of these digital spaces has waned. Not so with VRChat. When much of the world was locked down, the platform’s daily user numbers steadily increased. That trend has mostly stuck, with numbers continuing to surpass prepandemic levels, according to data cited by the platform.

To attend a virtual club in VRChat you only need a standard PC, but getting the most immersive experience requires a V.R. headset, and a moderately powerful computer. The Tube nightclub is just one of hundreds of thousands of discrete VRChat worlds where people gather and socialize in avatar form.

Credit…via VRChat
The Tube VR nightclub is just one of hundreds of thousands of discrete VRChat worlds where users can assume fantastical avatars of their own design.Credit…via VRChat

I felt out of place at my first V.R. party. There was a new social etiquette to learn around how to approach and talk to other clubbers, and I felt my default avatar looked basic compared with the imaginative creatures surrounding me. But with my headset translating my voice and movements into the virtual space and avatars dancing and chatting all around me, it felt surprisingly close to being in a real club.

This experience provides a glimpse of how socializing might look in our increasingly technologically mediated future. “Just as video conferencing via Zoom has become a central part of ordinary life for so many people, now that it’s convenient and useful, it’s easy to imagine that in ten years’ time, VR could be playing that role” in daily socializing, too, David Chalmers, a professor of philosophy and neural science at New York University who has written a book about V.R., said over email.

Naturally, some aspects of VRChat cannot compete with real life, and V.R. events suffer frequently from delays and glitches. But partying in virtual reality also offers distinct advantages: Personal safety and harassment are less of a concern; users have more control over their environment, and can adjust the volume of people’s voices or the music to their liking; and aside from the upfront hardware cost, events are free.

This increased accessibility is particularly meaningful for people who live far from clubbing hot spots, and for users with impaired mobility. The VRChat user Turels was a professional musician until he was diagnosed with adult onset Still’s disease, a form of arthritis that meant he could no longer use his hands to play instruments.

“When I got the diagnosis, I thought I was done — time to pack up my music equipment and sell it off,” Turels, who asked that his real name not be published for reasons of privacy related to his illness, said in a recent phone interview. But friends he made in the virtual club encouraged him to try out in virtual reality using specially adapted hardware. He now performs music in VRChat regularly.

“VRChat has given that part of my life back to me,” he said.

Credit…via VRChat
Shelter is a popular VRChat club that evolves according to a conceptual sci-fi narrative.Credit…via VRChat

On any given weekend, there are dozens of VRChat parties. There is Mass, a rave inside the head of a giant robot; Shelter, a popular club that evolves according to a conceptual sci-fi narrative; and Ghost Club, a pioneering Japanese venue that users enter via a phone booth. Each “VRchitect” who constructs a club makes the most of their freedom from the constraints of budget and physical space.

One of VRChat’s distinguishing features is that almost all of its content is created by its users. There are few opportunities to monetize their in-game creations, and while some venues run Patreon pages to cover costs, a vast majority are created and run by volunteers — some, like Tube, also raise money for charity.

VRChat itself is free to use and largely funded by investors, receiving $80 million in its last funding round in 2021. This caution around monetization has fostered a club scene that feels authentically grass-roots. There are, however, plans to introduce a creator economy in the near future.

The ravers are just one of VRChat’s major communities. There are also L.G.B.T.Q. groups, worlds dedicated to role-playing, dancing, Buddhist meditation and erotic encounters. A deaf community teaches V.R. sign language in a virtual school‌.

The avatars that users choose are often cartoonish, but the relationships they build in VRChat are unquestionably human.

Credit…via VRChat
May S. Lasch’s avatar, center, at Concrete, an L.G.B.T.Q. club on VRChat. Lasch began to experiment with their gender expression in virtual reality and said it “helped me find my real self.”Credit…via VRChat

“I met so many new people that I call my best friends nowadays, who I also met up with in real life,” May S. Lasch, who runs the L.G.B.T.Q. club Concrete on VRChat, said in a video interview. “In the end, V.R. is about the people, not the technology. The technology just brings people from far away closer.”

One of the utopian promises of the internet was that you could reinvent yourself online and be anyone you wanted. In VRChat, Lasch is an anime girl with blushing cheeks and long white hair. Born in Germany, Lasch was assigned male at birth but realized at a young age they did not relate to that label. Today, they identify as nonbinary and use they and them pronouns.

They did not feel supported in this by their conservative family, but began to experiment with their gender expression in virtual reality, which helped them build the confidence to start presenting differently in real life, too. “During rough times, I remade myself in this game,” they said, “and it helped me find my real self.”

Perhaps the biggest barrier to VRChat becoming more of a mainstream clubbing space is the limitations of V.R. hardware. The best headsets are still expensive, and many find them bulky and report experiencing headaches or nausea. But with continued heavy investment in virtual reality from Meta and Sony, and with Apple working on a headset, the technology should keep improving and becoming more accessible.

Since V.R. technology is relatively new, there has not been much research into the long-term effect of spending large amounts of time in virtual reality. “I’ve spent so much time in VRChat, close to 4,000 hours,” Lasch said, “I have dreams that are in V.R. Sometimes I spend 12 hours in V.R. and then when I come out of it, I still see the little mute microphone symbol in my vision.”

Another obstacle is the fear that virtual reality is a substitute for actual reality. But many of its users said VRChat supplemented, rather than supplanted, real life.

This is certainly true for Lincoln Donelan, who runs parties called Loner both virtually and in his hometown, Melbourne, Australia. I found him one evening in the virtual club’s dingy bathroom chatting with a giant fox, a couple of skater girls and a guy in a dinner jacket smoking a cigarette.

Donelan’s avatar — an anime girl with dark hair, mint green eyes and tattoos spread across bone-white skin — explained his schedule for the coming weekend: in a real-life club on Friday night, running a V.R. party on Saturday afternoon before going out for dinner and another party in Melbourne, then getting up on Sunday to head back into virtual reality.

“V.R. will never, ever replace real-life clubbing, ever. I think it’s the perfect complement to it, though,” he said. “Ultimately, V.R. is just another thing you can choose from.”

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