While you’ve been hanging out on the centralized, Instagram-filtered internet, full of hashtags and viral GIFs, a weird, wild, and extremely fascinating new territory has been established — surrounded by difficult technical borders and protected by a social vocabulary with a steep learning curve. This new territory is “VRChat,” a virtual-reality chat room teeming, like the internet itself, with creativity, intellectual-property infringement, friendship, and a concerning amount of casual racism. It is either a peek at what the future of social network looks like, or the newest outpost of the internet’s most offensive and antisocial. Or, maybe, it’s both!
What is VRChat?
VRChat is exactly what its name implies — a virtual-reality chat room. Users walk around in 3-D environments and talk to each other. It’s sort of like the infamous social arena Second Life, if you remember that, or like World of Warcraft, except without the standard goals that games usually give you. You pick a 3-D avatar, you walk around, and you talk to people.
So I need VR headset.
No, you can actually use it as you would any other PC game, it’s just way better with a VR headset. VRChat works with both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive — these are two heavy-duty pieces of VR hardware. You cannot use the VR part of VRChat with, for instance, a VR-enabled phone and Google Cardboard.
The reason it’s worth playing with an actual headset is that it really works as VR. VRChat supports body-tracking, so players can crouch and move their arms freely, if they like. VRChat also takes the size of your 3-D model into account, so some players can be enormous while others are knee-high.
Sometimes, this can be fun; sometimes, it allows players spread around the world to watch another player suffer a seizure in frightening detail …
Huh. Did I see a Morty from the television show Rick and Morty in that video?
Yes. One of the most incredible things about VRChat is that it is an intellectual property Wild West, and I’m not just talking about someone blasting clips from Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah” over their mic.
The people who make VRChat provide an SDK, a software pack that allows other people to make content for the platform, including 3-D avatars. Technically skilled people have imported and created countless avatars, from Homer Simpson, to Gordon Freeman from Half-Life, to Naruto (you should know, there is a higher-than-normal ratio of anime avatars in VRChat). It’s unclear where the line is on using copyrighted material as your avatar in VRChat. After all, running around as a 3-D SpongeBob isn’t really that different from making SpongeBob your profile picture.
What do people do in VRChat?
Uh, they just sort of stand around and talk to and troll each other. In a world of iMessage and Slack and Twitter and other asynchronous platforms, it can feel refreshing to just lurk and watch people interact with each other in real time. I’ve seen people doing karaoke. I’ve seen one guy play guitar while another improv’d some lyrics (this was on an environment resembling a gigantic Tide Pod called Tide Pod World). One room features markers that let people draw in the air, which can be fun and chaotic. The lack of restrictions on the platform makes it feel pretty limitless.
That same freedom also leads to a decent amount of trolling, harassment, and lewd comments, made all the more worse by the added mobility in gesturing that virtual reality affords. VRChat says it is working on a more substantial fix for harassment, but for now it offers muting people by default and advises everyone to use common sense when interacting with strangers online.
And now, let’s talk about Ugandan Knuckles.
Knuckles, the Sonic character?
Yeah, Knuckles, the echidna from the Sonic the Hedgehog video-game series. As the Daily Dot recounts, the visuals come from a game review from YouTuber Gregzilla, which featured a sketch of a comically deformed Knuckles (seen here at 1:51), who was turned into a 3-D model by artist tidiestflyer.
This character became known as Ugandan Knuckles after it was paired with audio from the Ugandan film Who Killed Captain Alex? — which had become a meme among video-game streamers on Twitch. (The studio that made the film, Wakaliwood, appreciates the attention, according to its Twitter account.)
The cult of Ugandan Knuckles revolves around “the way,” and player run around asking each other “Do you know de way?” in caricature African accents. If this sounds racist, it’s because, well, it is. Players posing as the tiny creatures also swarm chat rooms making clicking noises and cracking jokes about Ebola. They also swarm female avatars and make spitting noises on them.
Some added flavor from the VRChat wiki:
There are currently 5 types of knuckles that have been discovered. The common Red Knuckles, the Warrior type Blue Knuckles, the Kommanda, aka a gold knuckles that is believed to be a leader capable of leading one or multiple tribes, and lastly Rare Knuckles such as large Knuckles that range from 6 feet to 20 feet monstrosities, microscopic knuckles, and Shiny Knuckles(Knuckles with a different colour other than Blue, Red or Gold.).
So what you’re saying is VRChat is irredeemably racist.
No! Obviously there are many shades of gray here. Some people are just running around in a cute avatar quoting a Ugandan movie that became a meme, others seem to have intentions that are far more overtly racist (or sexist — Ugandan Knuckles’ small stature makes it very easy for users playing as him to look up other users’ skirts). A lot of it falls in the middle, and your mileage may vary. But much like 4chan, a wellspring of funny and creative and collaborative internet culture that was also very much against political correctness, VRChat runs the risk of being defined by its worst users. That would be a shame.
How do I get the Ugandan Knuckles avatar?
Okay, I will tell you, but first I should say: Don’t be an asshole. Don’t run around in VRChat joking about Ebola in a racist caricature voice. And don’t chase people around pretending to spit on them. Got it?
If you want to see the original Knuckles avatar, head to a VRChat world called Uganda (it’s logo is the Ugandan flag with Knuckles in the center). In the middle of the island will be a treasure chest with a Knuckles inside. Interact with it to transform into the tiny terror. There are other worlds offering other Knuckles avatars, but I’ll let you seek them out on your own.
How do I get other avatars in VRChat?
There are certain worlds in VRChat that basically function as avatar shopping malls. If you head to a place like Al’s Avatar Corridors, you’ll find a bunch of legally dubious options. Or if you are a brilliant 3-D modeler, you can just make them yourself with the Unity and VRChat SDKs.