February 20, 2024

The Day VR Stood Still

Opportunities for bravery and kindness don't announce themselves when they happen. They just show up.

The Day VR Stood Still
Photo by julien Tromeur / Unsplash

Last March, a friend in South Africa sent out invitations for a special festival that took place in VR. A cross-portal event, it featured a dedicated stream to show community meetings and panels happening in Johannesburg, as well as musical entertainment and afterparties. Visitors who showed up virtually were reflected back in screens at the conference, and curious visitors could wear VR headsets to speak with digital attendees.

The timezone difference between America and Johannesburg meant the celebrations started early for me. I rolled out of bed around five in the morning, about the same time I'd get up to attend a performance at an overseas techno club. Logging on, I found the virtual festival map to resemble Johannesburg--specifically, Constitution Hill. The theme of the 8-hour broadcast was "virtual equality"; friends from the UK and other areas of the world were also present on the map to attend panels and performances.

The first panel was a town meeting. Citizens of Johannesburg reflected on the abolition of apartheid, some having been alive when the changeover happened. The orderly meeting saw various people line up for their turn to speak. They talked about everything from local ordinances, to philosophical questions for the room to discuss.

Afterwards, a break--then the dance portion began. Two emcees, who have guided events at the virtual venue before, returned to officiate. Knowing us all on a first-name basis, we danced together and laughed while VR headsets were passed around and visitors joined us online.

This was how it regularly was at the venue. We'd get up early, dance to musical sets put on by DJs either on the virtual or physical side, and then we'd part ways around noon. But somewhere between the first few performances, there was a commotion on the other end. As more people were waking up and joining the VR map, we saw the emcees become distracted by something. Eventually one of them turned towards the screen and announced in a jovial way that the festival--overall--had been joined by a protest group.

Who would protest love and kindness? You know, there's all types out there. You can be the nicest person possible and there will still be someone mean-mugging you in the corner of the room. Normally, you can ignore this person and they'll go away. It gets a little different, though, when they march right up to a festival you're holding and forcibly shut off your electricity.

Right after the emcees informed us of what was happening, the cross-reality portal went dark. What struck me was how calm the portal hosts remained the entire time. Not much was known about the protest group outside of Constitution Hill; the attending staff of the venue, located on the physical side, were stationed in a way to watch over the cameras and equipment. When the portal shut off, everyone still waiting on the virtual map worried about what might happen. We didn't want a bunch of hateful people to take away our friends' equipment--or do anything worse.

It also dawned on us that if the video turned back on and there was something horrible happening on the other side, we'd have to determine if we were willing to stay on the map for that. We turned to each other and talked about it honestly. We said if anyone needed to go because they were worried about seeing something that might affect them, it was best to head out.

Almost everyone resolved to stay.

I don't think political hardship is only fought with a stern face and strong words. It's also fought with kindness.

I think about that decision a lot nowadays. There are times when the internet lately is unbearable to me. I'm a woman of color; there are instances of hate that I see in the news that sometimes makes me panic.

But then I remember the emcees, and how they jovially laughed despite their concern, and how brave they were to literally put on a cross-reality performance despite the very real threat outside their own doors. If they can do that, then what can I do as an American? I grew up in Detroit. I can face more than the average person, but it can be hard to get others to be brave along with you.

But other users around me deciding to also stay gave me an incredible amount of hope. I can't assume those other people haven't been through hardship, haven't seen their own share of horrible things, or aren't as stubborn as I am. They, too, found hate intolerable. They wanted to be there for the crew we knew, who showed up every month to party with us and stay connected.

The least we could do was be there for them too.

a person standing in the air with a star in their hand
Photo by julien Tromeur / Unsplash

When the power finally turned back on, we were relieved at the news that the protest group had actually shown up unarmed. They were active enough to disrupt the power, but weren't there that day to physically hurt anyone. The protest group rolled through and eventually left the grounds entirely.

The festivities at Constitution Hill, and its resulting stream into VR, went well into the night. There was definitely a lot to everyone to celebrate.

I don't think political hardship is only fought with a stern face and strong words. It's also fought with kindness. It's fought with the realization that entertainment is a sanctuary, not an escape. It's fought with jokes and checking on your friends regularly. It's fought with love and reminders that life is precious, and the knowledge that you can celebrate life while also voraciously defending it by being unwilling to bend to tyranny. Two things can be true at once.

(Also, it's fought with voting. Please vote.)

Nowadays, our emcee friends are traveling the world, visiting America, engaging in overseas performances, and still throwing parties online. It's a get-together for people who have now grown closer, but we also know it's a time to celebrate life.

VR is a sanctuary. We make art here in spite of the world, not to ignore it.

Keep hope alive.