What I've learned from VRChat

How virtual social spaces helped me with social anxiety

I've never been particularly adept socially. Even now, I only know a handful of people at my university by name—and it's very rare that I'll actually go hang out with someone.

Like many others who struggle socially, I use the internet to supplement my social needs. But it's never worked for me. Talking in short online posts, watching streams—none of it was real human interaction.

In virtual reality though, a switch flips. The medium is rich enough that, suddenly, the person in front of you is real. No longer limited to text or video, your mind finally registers what it's interacting with as a human rather than an abstract representation of one. Suddenly, people begin acting much closer to how they do in real life.

Of course, this doesn't solve the problem. Now we're just back to the same social problems experienced in real life. No, the actual difference I experienced is in intention.

Because VRChat is a purely social space, (nearly) everyone there has intent to socialize. There's much less pressure to leave strangers alone, less worry about bothering someone, less anxiety about being rejected. No one is busy, no one has plans; they are just there to be.

Like other online communities, VRChat has its own fair share of trolls and elitists. But once you find spaces you enjoy, there's a huge power in choosing how you socialize. If you enjoy partying, you can hang out in a dance club or bar. But just as easily, you can talk 1-on-1 with someone in a quiet room. Perhaps you'd rather go into a cozy house and listen to people laugh around a fireplace. Or maybe you want to play a murder mystery game. Even if you avoid talking, you can still emote or send text messages.

This accessibility was a turning point for me. Socializing is a skill, and after being isolated for years I started to just…forget it. It's a vicious cycle, where the worse you get the harder it is to find an opportunity to start again. But VRChat gave me a low-stakes environment where I could slowly build myself back up again, in an environment with other kind and supportive people.

After all, what makes a social space is, in the end, the people there. And to my surprise, I actually found myself enjoying talking with strangers. VRChat is played by people young and old, from diverse backgrounds and countries, all with their own story. It's a melting pot you'd be hard-pressed to find a real world analog for, and I loved getting to see even a little bit of what made others tick.

In the end, what VRChat has finally given me is the confidence that there are others who enjoy my company. So I give my thanks to the VRChat devs, all the community members who made the in-game content, and the players for creating such an incredible experience.