September 6, 2023

It Takes A Big Fight To Keep VR Hate-Free

It's the elephant in the room: hate is nearly systemic in VR platforms at this point.

It Takes A Big Fight To Keep VR Hate-Free
Photo by Mediamodifier / Unsplash

A few years ago, I joined a friend group comprised of VR club owners, artists, and DJs. Some of the names that now circulate most commonly among the community now were there. On one of the group's earliest days, the guys who ran the music club Shelter arrived. Right after their welcome, those of us who had joined the group so far got pulled into a voice chat to say our hellos.

Somehow, one of the group's hosts, Paul Manton, got the idea to take 2TD (the owner of Shelter)'s face and paste it onto the meme of the "Draw 25" meme guy, which normally depicts a black man holding an excessive amount of Uno cards because he refused to commit to a simple action. It was funny, but then the joke-teller decided it wasn't funny enough. In private messages, I begged Paul to let it go and not do what I felt he was going to do. He ignored my pleas and did it anyway.

I still have a record of the talk I gave Paul Manton after this happened: he colored 2TD's face brown. Then, in the discord live chat as everyone watched, he declared the image to be complete. Everyone laughed.

As the only black person in the chat, I felt like utter shit.

2TD is short for 2ToneDisco, which, to me, looks named after the fact the musical act used to be comprised of two people: Omni, a black artist from Phoenix, Arizona, and James, a white musician who at the time lived in Colchester, UK. Back then, it didn't even register to me how weird the name was. Nowadays, you'd make the joke that they might as well have called themselves Chocolate Swirl or Jungle Fever. Times change, and peoples' attitudes change along with it.

Shelter went on to do its thing, but I never forgot what happened. It ended up helping to ruin every other interaction I've had with them. At one point, I dealt with harassment from another controlling clubgoer who stuck by 2TD's side; I saw him hanging out with the DJ and with VRChat Community Lead, Tupper, pretty closely at Magfest this past January. Seeing the community safety leader with "the blackface guy" and the guy who harassed me so much that it led me to advocate for greater safety in VR, made me feel as if there was almost nothing I could do to warn anyone off from bad actors--they would try to climb that ladder anyway. I ended up taking a brief break from VR from that interaction alone.

During the EAC protests, it was revealed that the word "blacklivesmatter" had been targeted in VRChat's code; if someone typed it in a username or world description, it would be replaced with the word "antagonistically". Tupper privately sent me a letter of apology for this, but looking back, it's another bit of evidence on the stack of bad interactions now.

When I began to write about the urgency of VRChat advancing its safety policies, I got a private complaint from a staff member that I needed to wait to see what staff would do since they were busy hiring more people to help out. While their point was understandable, the way they complained at me made me feel as if I were asking for too much by mentioning the problem at all. I confronted the person about how uncool that was, only to be met with silence. It was a shock to me, as I had previously viewed that person as a voice for gender inclusiveness and equality.

Currently, there's more open talk about racism and bigotry in VR's creative community. That's great, but I wonder if it's really true. Are women going to finally be treated with more respect around here, or will we be yelled down again when we speak out about abusers who move silently through social circles and try to tug on peoples' strings with subtle manipulation? Will its casual racism finally be kicked to the curb, or will the people who complain about it continue to be called sensitive? This is the type of person we ended up lampooning in our VR Zine--the user who can't stand being told to consider others, and is all too ready to refer to Hitler and Nazis to justify their point. Privately, that person's sharing swastikas in a discord somewhere and laughing it up with their chums.

The VRChat's music scene isn't the only place with this problem. I've left a popular worldbuilding community, VRCPrefabs, having tired of interacting with one prominent Blender guru after witnessing her blaming women for their own sexual assault and making casual transphobic remarks (again, I have record of a talk with the offending creator about this). Even with its community being filled with nonbinary creators, that was still a thing for a long time. I see more of my trans friends gravitating to the group now, so I hope it makes a difference.

And I get it--some of these offenses were done years ago. But I don't see much evidence of real change right now, just a quest to cover this stuff up and condemn the next person who does the exact same thing. I grew up in a super Christian setting where I thought homosexuality was gross and said as much. Now, I know the truth about my own sexuality and how I was fed nothing but lies in order to stay in line.

The point is that you actually care to change and that you feel bad about what happened before. The point is that you mean it when you say you're sorry. The change isn't real if you're just burying your head in the sand for internet points while you loudly proclaim in a Twitter thread that you're against racism, and your friends are making private accounts to keep the harassment and hate going.

While you're doing that, the internet is slowly sinking into deeper waters of far-right thinking. Nothing is being accomplished at all.

Again--I'm black and maybe I see patterns here where my white colleagues don't, but there's danger forming and it's leading right up to the American Presidential election. This country is overturning abortion laws, seeking to censor trans content online, and is practically rolling around in fascist idealogical mud puddles. And it feels like some members of VR would sooner celebrate that rather than wake up to how their behavior's ruining everything beautiful we've built here.

It's difficult to collectively address the messed-up things people do to one another in digital space, but I think viewing these actions as symptoms of a larger problem is also becoming quite important. VR needs to be protected from fascism. If it sinks into another space that looks like Elon Musk's Twitter, we're in real trouble.

UPDATE: We have corrected the perception of 2TD's name origin to reflect an African-American's view, which might not actually be where the name is from. Still, our point about dated names stand.