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The Rise of the ‘Immersive Virtual Online Avatar Society’: Does an Online Community Established in the Virtual Space Constitute a ‘Real’ Society?

Visual Technologies as a Panacea for Social Isolation

In: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy
Author:
Rene NovakDr., BestStart, Christchurch, New Zealand, proronny@gmail.com

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Abstract

This video article series investigates the emergence of a ‘digital haven’, that hosts a new type of society. These people are converging in digitally constructed realities for multiple reasons: some seek refuge from the harsh realities of the contemporary social order, others investigate new ways to socialise, or seek somewhere where the limitations of the real world don’t apply. Both science-fiction media and academics predicted that once virtual reality technologies (vr) reach the general consumer, society would change (; ; ; ). In recent years the number of households with vr devices has increased (; ). This article suggests that vr technology has given birth to an ‘Immersive Virtual Online Avatar Society’. This society harbours many occasional visitors, but also some permanent virtual residents. Important questions arise; starting with: “Does an online community established in the virtual space constitute a ‘real’ society?” This will be investigated with sources from virtual worlds developed with the social multi-user vr software VRChat, drawn from academic research, from video recordings of interactions in VRChat and from philosophical inquiry into the author’s personal experiences and the experiences of other users.

Abstract

This video article series investigates the emergence of a ‘digital haven’, that hosts a new type of society. These people are converging in digitally constructed realities for multiple reasons: some seek refuge from the harsh realities of the contemporary social order, others investigate new ways to socialise, or seek somewhere where the limitations of the real world don’t apply. Both science-fiction media and academics predicted that once virtual reality technologies (vr) reach the general consumer, society would change (Caddy, 2019; Gibson, 1984; Heim, 1993; Virtual Reality Society, 2017). In recent years the number of households with vr devices has increased (Bol, 2018; Petrock, 2021). This article suggests that vr technology has given birth to an ‘Immersive Virtual Online Avatar Society’. This society harbours many occasional visitors, but also some permanent virtual residents. Important questions arise; starting with: “Does an online community established in the virtual space constitute a ‘real’ society?” This will be investigated with sources from virtual worlds developed with the social multi-user vr software VRChat, drawn from academic research, from video recordings of interactions in VRChat and from philosophical inquiry into the author’s personal experiences and the experiences of other users.

FEATURE
FEATURE

Rene Novak’s article comprises a video, which can be viewed here.

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 6, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10023

  1. This article is part of the special topic ‘Visual Technologies as a Panacea for Social Isolation’, edited by Rene Novak.

1 Introduction

Recently a multitude of digital cultures have sprouted and are flourishing in countless online spaces where now a significant proportion of non-formal and informal learning are taking place (Ifenthaler, 2018). There are some instances that have been widely researched, such as the online platform ‘Second Life’ (Jarmon et al., 2009), that harbours one of the first digital societies and illustrates how well suited 3D virtual worlds are for collaborative and cooperative experimental learning. Additionally, a rising interest in the gamification of learning (Kim et al., 2018) has also increasingly become a contemporary focus to researchers and academics with special considerations given to online interactions between gamers. New spaces for social online interactions and learning have manifested in forms of gaming chat rooms such as the widely popular applications Discord and Slack (Hornshaw, 2018). However, with the rise of the information technology culture the digital space has been exposed to a rapid expanse, incepting a wide range of alternative virtual spaces that are giving rise to new forms of online societies, harbouring post-human citizens.

Many of these social structures have formed in refuge from the real world, away from people unversed in technological literacy and far removed from the eyes of the academic researcher. With the resurrection and a rapid advance in popularity of virtual reality technology (vr), cyber-spaces are now being populated with an unprecedented level of immersion, as predicted by science-fiction media and academics (Gibson, 1984; Heim, 1993; Virtual Reality Society, 2017).

With vr becoming affordable and widely available to consumers in the recent years (Arnaldi et al., 2018) a new kind of vr specific digital society emerged. This article introduces the term ‘Immersive Virtual Online Avatar Society’ (ivoas) to describe a collective of virtual reality technology users that interact with each other immersively through digitally constructed avatars in an online computer designed virtual world. A number of software applications have been developed to facilitate ivoas on several vr platforms such as Altspacevr, VRChat, vTime, Rec Room, SlotsMillion vr, Facebook Horizons and Sansar; the later having been incepted by the same developers as Second Life.

Very recently FaceBook announced that they will be changing their company name in order to turn their trillion-dollar social media company onto a ‘metaverse’ company. Facebook’s Oculus now owns most of the vr consumer market and in order to use their flagship devices users need to log into their Facebook account. Zuckerberg (Founding ceo) (Matney & Hatmaker, 2021) noted about their upcoming metaverse:

I wanted to discuss this now so that you can see the future that we’re working towards and how our major initiatives across the company are going to map to that. What is the metaverse? It’s a virtual environment where you can be present with people in digital spaces. You can kind of think of this as an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at

matney & hatmaker, 2021, para. 2

Facebook is about to employ 10,000 people in the EU to build their metaverse (bbc News, 2021), understanding the potential the virtual space holds for the future, and as an early adopter wanting to create a strong foothold to capitalise from when the venture matures.

To better understand the developing metaverse as a new form of social construct; the formation, structure, rules, affordances, and risks of becoming a citizen of an ivoas within the virtual worlds facilitated by VRChat will be investigated in this publication. This will aid in answering the question if an online community established in the virtual space does constitute a ‘real’ society? The question will be investigated with the help of an example on virtual worlds developed with a social multi-user vr software known as VRChat, drawn from academic research, video recordings of interactions in VRChat and a philosophical inquiry into the author’s personal experiences and experiences of other users.

2 What Constitutes a Society

To be able to effectively investigate the dynamics of an online society firstly the scope and the defining elements of what constitutes a society will be investigated. The word ‘socius’ originates from the same root as sequor and the Italian socii (Dowdall, 1925), derived from the Latin term soctius, which describes an ally or partner; and socdietas an alliance or partnership that could be applied in plurality as well. If we consider the origins and the formation of the word society then any group which cooperates to any avail, whether the group is simple or elaborate, whether its members are a few or many and whether they share a common space or are widely dispersed, would fall under this definition.

When consulting dictionaries a range of different interpretations are offered regarding the word society, including some that conform with the views of the origin of the word, such as the Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, that suggests this definition: “A social group characterized by some degree of reflective and voluntary co-operation,” (Baldwin, 1920 as cited by Dowdall, 1925, p. 21). A Dictionary of Sociology constitutes society as “a group of people who share a common culture, occupy a particular territorial area and feel themselves to constitute a unified and distinct entity.” (Scott & Marshall, 2009, para. 1). This interpretation exemplifies findings of a historical review of the term that suggests that newer publications have endeavoured to become a lot more specific in their pursuit for a suitable definition of the term. However, Dowdall (1925) stressed close to a century ago that when people are invested in investigating certain aspects of society there is no reason for them to restrict themselves to the use of the word as a technical term in the realm of sociology, but instead consider the extended sense in which some great writers in history have applied it.

Hence even though the intellectualisation of the term has taken place, there are still academic theorists that suggest that society is “not merely an aggregate of persons with certain formal characteristics in common or simply a state or an otherwise delimited territory” (Eriksen, 2011, p. 19) as there is more needed than just a group of people to constitute a society.

To this point Godelier et al. (2009) phrase important connections to enable a conceptualisation and characterisation of what beyond a group of people is required to constitute a society. They stress that there needs to be certain, qualities, values, or beliefs that bind the group into a societal entity. These connections could be political, religious, economic, kinship, or other as long as they are able to bring together groups and individuals. A further requirement deliberated (Godelier et al., 2009) refers to established known borders that do not need to be recognised by other societal groups. There is fair discrepancy observed when considering the division of territory where some theorists argue that societies need to be clearly separated (Giddens, 1997) to fully achieve the societal status, while others are more lenient and note that societies require relative isolation (Keesing & Strathern, 1998). These characteristics should bring the members of the society together into an all-encompassing whole under a shared identity. Eriksen (2011) suggests some additional basic categories of social theories that should be considered in regard to the legitimacy and self-understanding of the society as a whole such as security, freedom, justice, normality, autonomy and rules for inclusion and exclusion. Hence while society is constituted of individuals that are working towards a common mutual benefit, beyond this statement it can be interpreted either as a very broad term, open to many generalisations about what the view of the Western society is; or it can be framed very narrowly, depicting only a small group of people within a given community. However regardless of the size or the link that binds a society together, it is shaped by the relationships between the individuals (Eriksen, 2011).

Similarly philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Rousseau et al., 2002) believed that a society is defined by the set of rules it operates by and he called this concept “the social contract.” The members of a society are required to abide by certain rules and laws otherwise it would become a dysfunctional social entity that would very likely collapse. Furthermore, members need to have some amount of control over the rules themselves to cooperate and commit to the social structure (Edmonds, 2010).

Rules encompass relations between members where Dowdall (1925) illiterates that relation needs to be one of activity, where the potentiality for relations needs to traverse into an act. He also suggests that the social relation is complementary and that each member needs to cooperate, regardless of the motive. Usually motives to become part of a society arise from the “inempirical fact that people all over the world seek ‘democratic’ values such as stability, continuity, security and predictability” (Eriksen, 2011, p. 21) often by defending or creating some kind of sense of belonging, collective memories linked to specific places and a differentiation specific to the society that is bordered off from the rest of the world. Eriksen (2011) hence suggests a focus on a distinct identity that is conceptually well placed, but needs to be checked against diverse empirical realities.

In summary, to determine the level of ivoas’s status as a society these important societal elements are going to be investigated in this article: basic ‘democratic’ rights, the shared distinct identity, communal relations (including social contract) and the level of isolation.

3 Temporal Migration through the Cybernetic Looking Glass

As noted before borders between societies can be particularly relative and ambiguous based on the diverse interpretations of scholars, but more often they are manifested as physical barriers or territorial boundaries between societies. However, through the digital revolution some societies have developed in virtual computerised worlds beyond the restrictions of physical reality. This evokes several sociological, anthropological, and philosophical questions regarding what occurs with groups of people that have migrated to a metaphysical society in another reality, away from the physical realm of existence. Migration suggests a permanent relocation to a different place, however as people freely move between the real and the digital world as they wish, they could be in fact referred to as dual citizens that are switching between two distinct societies at will. Hence migration in its own right is not a sufficient enough term to describe the momentary (temporal) relocations between societies. Due to this the term ‘temporal migration’ is suggested in this article to describe a situation where people are joining online virtual societies while still being part of the society in the real world across their now overlapping or hybrid cultural worlds (Eriksen, 2011).

At this point of the article the author will aim to answer the important question that arises, as to what this boundary between the society in the physical world and the society in the virtual world is and how does a person temporarily migrate between them. In search of an answer a better understanding of how virtual reality technology enables people to visit virtual worlds is needed and will be addressed next.

Virtual Reality technology enables users to perceive computer generated environments (Naimark, 2018) through embodied experiences as real. Human sensations such as sight, hearing, motion and touch are being deceived by computer generated stimuli to translocate the consciousness into the digital space. The term ‘Virtual Reality’ is contradictory in, and of, itself as ‘virtual’ means something that is not physically existing or something that is close to the truth but is not the truth itself (Heim, 1993). Heim (1993) compared the process of relocating from the physical to the virtual world to walking through a cybernetic looking glass and relocating from the real world into cyberspace. He drew a correlation to the sequel to a popular story called ‘Alice through the looking glass’, where Alice visits Wonderland for a second time and uses a mirror to enter the alternative world. As we can see, hear, touch and interact with both the real and the virtual worlds, theoretical wonderings emerge about how ‘real’ the virtual world is compared to the physical.

From a philosophical perspective, vr attempts to change the user’s perceptions of truth by offering worlds constructed by men or in some cases machine while giving the designers the role of an omnipotent entity within the designated world. From this perspective, vr worlds can be seen as embodiments of verisimilitude, a falsehood that seems real while having the appearance of a true reality (Renardel de Lavalette & Zwart, 2011). This must be seen in the light of the purpose of vr being to mimic reality (Heim, 1993; Sharma et al., 2015) and hence poses a conundrum about the legitimacy (realness) of virtual online societies, as it may be confined to merely an imitation of real societies. Heim (1993) notes the link between physical reality and virtual reality where: “cyber space can make breaking through the interface (a human user connects with the system, and the computer becomes interactive) possible and inhabiting an electronic realm where reality and symbolised reality constitute a third entity – Virtual Reality” (p.78). From this view virtual reality has an element that is real and an element that is virtual, which is further supported by Heim portraying vr as an: “event or entity that is real in effect but not in fact” (1993, p.109), again highlighting the dichotomy between reality and virtuality. Concretely this would mean that arguably if vr can cause a real-life bodily reaction and feelings such as fear, amazement and excitement in adults, they must at some level perceive it as some sort of truth. These effects are possible due to vr providing immersion through embodiment, which is the key to unlock the passage to the virtual world and occurs as vr technology interacts with a person.

For people to experience cyberspace in an embodied way through vr technology, digitally induced stimuli are commonly generated by a head mounted display (hmd), earphones, controllers and with some models further sophisticated pieces of technology (Cochrane & Farley, 2017). Through sensors and trackers, the movements of users in the real world are translated to the movements in the digital world close to instantaneously. The below video explains and shows the technology used to move through the cybernetic looking glass (see Video 1).

Video 1
Video 1

Through the cybernetic looking glass. (See here.)

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 6, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10023

In the case of ivoas these movements are manifested in the user’s avatar, which is a digitally constructed moving model that is the visual representation of the user in the virtual space. With some specific software knowledge avatars can be modelled, modified and customised to suit the imagination and wishes of the user. In the application VRChat many avatars are also available throughout various worlds to be cloned and favourited to the user’s personal repertoire, giving the user the ability to change their appearance at will. Users interact with each other through their avatars with eye tracking that enables the experience of eye contact and speech to mouth synchronisation that visually emulates an accurately talking face synchronised to the words they are saying. VRChat works with most current vr devices that have access to the windows-based game and application platform Steam.

Therefore, to cross the boundary between the physical and virtual world and walk through the cybernetic looking glass to join an ivoas, a person requires a vr device with a relatively high performing computer, a stable internet connection and software to log into. The software that is going to be explained next as an example is VRChat. The following section will hence explore previously highlighted important sociable elements of ivoas with the use of VRChat as the social vr software.

4 Forming of an Immersive Virtual Avatar Society in VRChat

VRChat is a free-to-play massively multiplayer online virtual reality social platform created by Graham Gaylor and Jesse Joudrey. It allows players to interact with others as 3D character models. The game was released for Microsoft Windows via Steam’s early access program on February 1, 2017.

wikipedia, 2019
It has been observed that most users of VRChat strongly disagree with the assumption Wikipedia (2019) makes above, that VRChat is a game. It can be stressed that VRChat is as much a game as FaceBook is. While there are games available to play in many of its worlds, the inhabitants of VRChat would argue that the main purpose of the application is social and is hence a great candidate to be academically investigated and determine how a mere application can incept a distinct online society. The below video illustrates some social interaction in VRChat and users talking about their reasons for being in the virtual space (see Video 2).

Societies are formed of our social groupings at varied levels, from small towns, through countries, to broader cultural groupings such as a Western society. Within such societies people tend to form particular cultures, formed of the ideas, customs, and social behaviours that make one society distinct from another.

oxford reference, 2019, para. 1
Video 2
Video 2

A glimpse of the social interactions in VRChat. (See here.)

Citation: Video Journal of Education and Pedagogy 6, 1 (2022) ; 10.1163/23644583-bja10023

Therefore, to determine the level of ivoas’s status as a society in VRChat, important societal elements are going to be examined next. These have been categorised into basic ‘democratic’ rights, the shared distinct identity, communal relations (including social contract) and the level of isolation. This section is going to draw from the author’s subjective experiences gained in the virtual worlds of the VRChat application that was visited regularly for a few years.

4.1 Basic ‘Democratic’ Rights in VRChat

In the contemporary world there are still societies that are not founded on basic human rights. In such cases most of their members have been either born into them and/or may not have a choice at being a part of them (Donnelly, 1999). But as joining an online society is presumed to only be able to occur by choice, essential democratic rights that support individual’s wellbeing need to be an integral part of its makeup, as otherwise people would very likely cease their memberships. In the above literature review it has been determined that the most important rights potential members of a society are looking for are security, freedom, justice, normality (stability), autonomy, continuity, and predictability. Some of these are manifested in ivoas very differently than in real life societies and security is one of them.

Keeping safe from physical harm in online worlds is a given, due to the user’s corporeal body being in the real world. However as in any large society VRChat has members that do not have the best intentions in mind when interacting with other people and they may cause potential harm to others that can be of a different nature than physical. The software has safeguards in place to protect the general user from many kinds of attacks. These are going to be further explained alongside VRChat’s justice system later.

There are circumstances in the physical world that affect people in ways that makes it feel unsafe and in turn restricts them to interact with the world fully and in ways they would have in normal circumstances (Wallace et al., 2016). For example, increasingly more people are developing anxieties such as the fear of being discriminated against, of being socially awkward, uncomfortable with their physical appearance, or a disability. In the contemporary world of post truth where information technology inflates social media standings and portrays them as absolute, people are unable to meet the unrealistic social norms, causing the development and rise of anxieties, stress, and depression. Many seek to escape such reality and look for release in addictions such as drugs, alcohol and consumerism (Gibbons et al., 2010). Some are leaving these ‘afflictions’ behind as they cross the cybernetic looking glass into virtual worlds such as the ones designed for VRChat. When assuming digital avatars as alternative personas, a sense of anonymity is awarded that provides security unachievable in the real world. While many users of VRChat use the app only to socialise, it has been observed that the removal of what people feel to be their bodily disparities, is another predominant reason for why people are joining ivoas. Physical body redesigns include changes in sex to better reflect users’ gender identities or to allow for exploration and experimentation of the opposite sex enabling the citizens of VRChat to be who they want, both in body and mind.

Suddenly individuals who loathed their lives in the real world, find newfound joy in living a virtual one. This results in many being citizens of ivoas increasingly longer in time. Some individuals spend most of their waking time in VRChat (Caddy, 2019), where they develop relationships with other users, including ones romantic in nature. People befriend others and groups and form subtribes of the VRChat society. However, these engagements result in some people losing the connections they had in the real world, underperforming in their worldly responsibilities and with some giving up on reality altogether, causing a major disruption in their lives, with the ‘death’ of the physical world identity. This illustrates how important the sense of security and well-being is, as some people are prepared to sacrifice ‘reality’ for it.

The added security in VRChat inevitably affects the sense of freedom as well. The expended freedom in personalising one’s identity is further embellished by the ability to defy the laws of physics that would usually apply in the real world. For example, transportation between different digital worlds and places is almost instantaneous with the use of portals that teleport the user to their desired location. People from all around the physical world can visit and interact with each other in VRChat at any time, any where amongst the many digitally constructed worlds. Several activities and functions in VRChat let users interact with the world in ways that would not be possible in the physical reality where for example characters are able to jump extraordinarily high, or have the ability to fly, draw with pens on thin air, sit on giant robots, walk under the sea, conjure up objects and a lot more. Heim (1993) referred to these variable potentialities to mould reality to one’s own desire as the metaphysical laboratory of virtual reality and suggested that it could be the ‘Holy Grail’ of philosophy, or on the other side of spectrum dangerous to human existence.

There are aspects of VRChat that are fluid and always changing such as the structures of the worlds and the applications’ functionality that continues to expand with each release, but there is also a sense of stability and predictability that comes with it. There are always worlds available to visit and explore, people to talk to, new relationships to be made and the home world that the user chooses as their unvacated instance of an area that they spawn into on their login to VRChat. Some worlds such as the popular Pub of VRChat are consistently visited by a large number of people offering further stability for users who like routine and who get attached to certain spaces that they like to revisit.

While there are some set rules established in this digital society, VRChat offers a lot of autonomy and opportunities for creativity. These are further strengthened through the open access development kit, that can be used by anyone with some understanding of Unity – the programming and 3D graphics development software. With this free program users can create or alter their avatars and virtual worlds and import them into the VRChat universe, that is as a result rapidly expanding. In fact, most worlds that can be visited in VRChat have been created by users, illustrating the contribution individual members make to ivoas in VRChat. This expanse of the software provides continuity for users as there is always new content for them to visit, explore, talk about, and invent.

As some of the rights discussed above have been extended in VRChat in comparison to the real world, it could be argued that ivoas are experiencing a virtual expansion of their democratic social rights, to suit the purpose and the vision of the world. However, as these are merely applicable to a virtual society and the time spent in it, they may not be something people experience through entirety of their day.

4.2 Acquiring the Shared Distinctive Identity of ivoas in VRChat through Informal and Non-Formal Education

Characteristics that are common to people grouped in a society make up their distinctive societal identity through which they are able to distinguish themselves form other societies and other societies are able to distinguish them from themselves (Keesing & Strathern, 1998). Some of these characteristics are obvious while others might be more subtle and need time spent within the worlds of VRChat to be understood.

The basic attribute common to everyone in VRChat is the use of technology to socialise in virtual worlds. Most users who enter VRChat are highly versed in the use of computer technology and the ones that are not are quickly educated on how to be. Most users of VRChat love to share their expertise and knowledge and will happily help other users to learn how to become a productive member of the society that can then start producing their own content towards the expense of the software. Such informal and non-formal learning occurs very commonly, where users are often talking about their creations and sharing their knowledge with others openly. Most residents are friendly, welcoming and will quickly acquaint new users with others, which makes the assimilation process into the society seamless.

Another commonality to VRChat ivoas is the importance of popular culture that comes alongside people versed in technology, such as knowledge about videogames, movies, anime and more. These are ever present in world designs, avatar visual identities and conversations. Common knowledge of these is valued and shared through informal and non-formal education using conversations, visual models, videos, music and more, which are underlined by the fact that all knowledge in VRChat is digitally acquired and shared in an embodied way. Hence ivoas have their own form of education and even though it is informal or non-formal it cannot be underestimated (Ifenthaler, 2018). This illustrates that learning is a human feature that occurs in most places and circumstances and takes different forms. Even though the global perspectives on recognising non-formal and informal learning are shifting (Singh, 2015) there is still a much stronger emphasis on the importance of formal learning. With most eyes focused on institutionalised education, significant opportunities for researching meaningful and highly enriching learning that is developing skills, knowledge and capacities of individuals in more unstructured circumstances (Eaton, 2010) are being overlooked. oecd (2018) states that: “The recognition of non-formal and informal learning is an important means for making the ‘lifelong learning for all’ agenda a reality for all and, subsequently, for reshaping learning to better match the needs of the 21st century knowledge economies and open societies (para. 7).” Peters & Roberts (2015) agree and add that skills and competencies most important for the economic future of our society are critical thinking, creativity and innovation that need to be attained from different contexts including home, leisure and work and are hence developing strongly through informal learning. It is also worth noting that the authors personal capabilities, knowledge and skills in programming, 3D modelling and in popular culture have anecdotally significantly increased through informal and non-formal learning in VRChat, however significant time in VR had to be spent to achieve this.

While the form of education in ivoas is mostly non-formal and informal there are some other applications that also facilitate formal learning, such as Engage vr, Horizon and Meetn vr, however these do not conform with a number of defining characteristics of ivoas. Apart from the forms of education, the learning pedagogy in vr is also very different in comparison with real life learning. As everything ivoas learn is digitally acquired through immersive experiences mediated through artificially simulated stimuli (Sharma et al., 2015) and relies on the relations between body – mind – (artificial) world (Husserl, 1973) the science of teaching and learning for ivoas could be categorised as Immersive Pedagogy, that is closely related with the field of Visual Pedagogies.

4.3 Communal Relations and the Social Contract in VRChat

Edmonds (2010) worries that there is no referee on the internet and the rules that govern people’s interpersonal contact do not apply as much as with anonymity that is provided by a screen name, people feel like they can say or do things that they would not otherwise have engaged in and bids that these may be hurtful or dangerous. However, this does not necessary apply for VRChat.

When you enter VRChat you are greeted with a panel outlining the rules of engagement in VRChat communal relations including what to do if people are breaking the social contract. VRChat social contract is developed in the form of community guidelines (VRChat Inc, 2019), that include an age requirement of 13 and condemn intolerance, harassment, inappropriate content, impersonation, disclosure of personal information, modifying or copying original content, unauthorised avatar modifications, solicitation and more. Considering these restrictions, it is obvious that several of them are specific to ivoas and as they are closely related with the characteristics of ivoas described earlier, they represent some of the defining points of the virtual society.

When considering communal relations in virtual spaces, it is important to highlight the potential risks of online harassment and cyber abuse (Seinfeld et al., 2021). Controlling and regulating content in a fully virtual environment provides for unprecedented challenges in comparison with the real world. It is much easier for abusers to hide behind a smoke screen in cyber spaces where anonymity is guaranteed. The risks include communication attempts that are harassing, offensive, derogatory and threatening; possibilities of being cyber-stalked, monitored or (bio)tracked; having personal and sensitive information being gathered and misused, including biometric data mining (The University of Auckland, 2022).

Due to the digital nature of the society the repercussions for rule breaking can be enforced instantaneously by individual users, a group in a room or by the administrators of the software. For example, it is not that uncommon that some users inflict sounds or visuals on other users that may be tolerable by some but unwanted by others. In their user interface individuals can mute another person (the avatar will still be visible but will not be heard) or block (where the blocked avatar will cease to see or hear the user and vice versa). This is an example of an individual becoming the ‘judge, jury and executioner’ in the judiciary system of VRChat, and the consequences are only going to apply to the affected two people. The legal system in the application can also be applied in a group context, where a person suggests to ‘kick’ (ban) another user from the world they are currently occupying. The suggestion will appear in the user interface for all the other users in the world who can opt to agree or disagree. If enough people agree the user will be ‘kicked’ out of the world. This example signifies a form of democracy, where the developers have created the interface for this practice, but the judicial implementation is left to the members of the society. Each user is also able to report another user to the administrators of the application who then decide what actions they will take based on the allegations and the number of reports. This can result in a permanent ban of the user, which is comparable to irredeemable banishment from the society as an ultimate form of punishment for breaking the social contract of the ivoas.

5 Conclusion

As increasingly more individuals take part in the temporal migration through the cybernetic looking glass into virtual worlds to become part of an ivoas, the question was posed whether an online community established in the virtual space constitutes a ‘real’ society? In the comparison of the authors experiences with VRChat’s ability to harbour an Immersive Virtual Online Avatar Society, and with what constitutes a society in the literature, a strong correlation between the two was established and in these interpretations of societies VRChat hold up as a ‘real’ society in all criteria, but the fact that it is anything but ‘real’ – being a virtual one.

This article argues that the basic democratic rights are being upheld and even extended in the virtual space, where the disconnect with the physical body and a sense of total anonymity lets people be / become who they want in body and in mind and without prejudice. The digital nature of ‘being’ in virtuality defines the shared distinct identity of ivoas alongside common interest in technology and popular culture, as well as the distinct collaborative way of learning informally and non-formally in virtual worlds. The social contract in VRChat is established by clear guidelines and rules that can be instantly enforced, by individuals, groups, and the developers. The cybernetic veil between the real and the virtual world draws a clear line between real world societies and those of the virtual worlds. While based on these criteria the author was able to confirm that ivoas do comply with features that constitute a society, there may still be more criteria that were not touched on and may speak to the contrary.

While these findings may elicit a very positive affordance of being a citizen of an ivoas, there are drawbacks and risks in ‘becoming posthuman’ that the author would like to allude to, as a point of reflection and contemplation in form of an epilogue to this video article.

6 Epilogue: The Risks of Becoming Posthuman

While Edmunds (2010) demonstrates his divided thoughts about online societies he also shares what he observed a decade ago as interesting effects of the Internet on society:

And because you can do everything from order a pizza online to pay your electric bill, some academics worry that the Internet will erode our real societies, as people opt out of participating in real life in favor of participating in cyberspace. On the other hand, some would argue that the Internet has only made our societies larger – a person in Delaware, after all, can now converse easily with a person in China. It will be interesting to see how technology shapes society in the future.

edmunds, 2010, para. 5

While, the developments in the last decade were certainly interesting the mentioned divide continues to persist and its significance for how the global human society operates is increasing drastically. While various affordances were outlined for choosing to live in an immersive virtual avatar society including informal and non-formal types of education for knowledge production described, giving preference to spend significant time as a virtual digital citizen brings with it far-reaching risks to individuals’ real-life existences.

People who spend extended time in Virtual Reality may not get enough exercise and will have limited contact with the physical natural world that has proven positive health benefits (Rasmussen & Laumann, 2013). According to Llewellyn (2015), research findings show a link between heavy Internet use and increased health risks such as addiction, attention issues, anxiety, depression and obesity. Some researchers also claim that real-life social interactions by far outweigh online social engagement in psychological benefits, by emphasising the importance of bodily experiences (Wu, 2010). Technological addiction is relatability also blamed for a disconnect with the worldly identity of body and mind, by inducing an illusionary ownership of a virtual body (Slater et al., 2009). ‘vr has a unique ability to transport us, and offer an escape from reality,’ (Caddy, 2019, para. 5), however prolonged dislocatedness form the real world can hinder work performance and general contribution to society.

References

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