Finding Human Interest Stories in Virtual Reality

From “Real Pastor In Virtual Reality Baptizes An Anime Girl”

In a (now unlisted) video posted in April 2018, YouTube creator Syrmor refers to VRChat, a free-to-play online virtual reality social platform, as a “postmodern aesthetic hellscape.” Though that video has far fewer views than most of his output, it exists as a kind of thesis statement for what his channel would become over the next year. Set to a slowed-down version of “Africa” by Toto, the video features 3D avatars of Kermit the Frog, Hank Hill, and Toucan Sam in a variety of psychedelic environments within VRChat. It’s a simple but effective three minutes that sets the stage for the (often tender) madness to come. 

Syrmor’s channel has become one of the most consistently compelling on YouTube. He uploads his VRChat encounters with random strangers, who open up about themselves and share intimate details of their lives while hidden behind their avatars of Disney characters or busty anime girls. In one (Syrmor’s most-watched, with just under six million views at the time of writing), a young boy using a Kermit the Frog avatar discusses being bullied frankly and heart-rendingly, all while his Kermit arms wag about. There’s a hilarious tangent when everyone gets a laugh out of what his avatar looks like when he takes off his VR headset. In another video, a real-life pastor baptizes a player named Drumsy, who’s using a pink-haired anime girl avatar with librarian glasses and generous cleavage. The pastor talks about how he has performed virtual baptisms before, including for folks who have difficulty leaving their houses due to disability or other challenges. 

Watching each of these videos comes with a similar process of adjusting your viewing logic. At first there’s humor in seeing these silly characters talking about serious, often dark subject matter, from the death of a girlfriend to homelessness. (In the latter case, the interviewee uses a very tall bird as an avatar and sings under the pseudonym “Kevin Costner.” Syrmor later met up with him in real life.) Then you become so enveloped in the conversation that you start to understand it as making a certain kind of humanistic sense. And finally, you’re brought back to reality, usually by a ridiculous joke or VR-related mishap, and faced with some profound tonal whiplash. The simultaneity of these emotions and experiences can be confusing, even as it expresses something earnestly thoughtful and reflective.

In the inaugural issue of ROMchip, a new journal of games history, Katherine Isbister, a professor in computational media at the University of California, Santa Cruz, writes: “From simple folk games recurring since ancient times … to the New Games movement of the 1970s that sought to encourage cooperative, collaborative play … to the current rage for streaming game play and commentary that combine digital game play and live video and text chat, game designers have been shaping the social fabric in sophisticated ways alongside changes in technological possibility spaces and cultural contexts.” She describes games as powerful but subtle social connection technologies. VRChat seems like the ultimate manifestation of that pursuit, perhaps even the logical endpoint. Syrmor has tapped into a new form of human interest storytelling in the tradition of Studs Terkel’s oral histories of everyday people, created within an emerging medium with wildly different (and unpredictable) qualities. The videos’ tonal juxtapositions settle into normality, largely because the incongruous affective experiences swiftly blend into one recognizable, and deliberate, aesthetic. 

Syrmor’s editing and stylistic choices suggest a knowledge of space and time in visual storytelling (particularly since VRChat is largely composed of static shots of characters standing around), evoking cinematic strategies combined with documentary-based journalistic curiosity and meme-inspired humor (such as zooming in on character reactions à la The Office, or cutting to something particularly incongruous happening onscreen during an emotional moment). Seemingly small choices have a significant impact on how the experience. Each one begins with subtitles and soft music as an emotional wallpaper that suits the stories more than the images. These are simple but helpful cues that let the viewer know that this isn’t just for shits and giggles. These are real people sharing deeply personal things, discovered in a medium pitched to anyone looking to connect on some level (and here I could be talking about both VRChat and YouTube). 

VRChat, like Second Life and similar games before it, exists as an experimental space of sociality. “This basic level of emotional safety opens up new avenues for users to engage in the types of experimentation often associated with pretense and play,” according to the authors of a study on the identities formed in Second Life. It’s this same quality that allows Syrmor to interview his subjects with remarkable authenticity — meeting folks where they’re at, so to speak. At heart, these are traditional slice-of-life narratives, told by cartoon avatars rendered in variable graphics. 

As Aubrey Anable writes in her book Playing with Feelings: Video Games and Affect, “video games as pervasive and popular media are uniquely suited to giving expression to ways of being in the world and ways of feeling in the present that can tell us something about contemporary digitally mediated and distributed subjectivity.” (Full disclosure: Anable was my master’s thesis supervisor.) Crucial to Anable’s argument is the idea that, as corporeal beings, we feel through objects and art. So the literal embodied experience of VRChat (and our experience by proxy watching these videos) helps so that “we see how our bodies, images, and code are meaningfully entangled.” Whatever transmissions of emotion and affect that take place, then, are not merely virtual, but actualized. This particular form of digital mediation and distribution could help us better understand how to be in the world today.

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