Is your future partner an avatar?
Most of us have pretty much never lived our adult lives without the internet. It’s affected us in innumerable ways – some good, some very bad – and despite not really knowing what a world without it looks like, it still continues to surprise us. In our Extremely Online series, we explore the apps, trends, subcultures, and all the other weird stuff the internet continues to offer.
Max* met his partner around 18 months ago, when they struck up conversation in a bar. The pair found they had lots in common; small talk turned to flirting, flirting turned to dating, dating turned into an exclusive relationship, and the couple are now engaged and planning a “traditional wedding” with a guest list including each of their closest friends.
There is one way in which this wedding will be anything but traditional, though: Max and his fiancee’s entire relationship has taken place in the online world of VR Chat, which launched in 2017 and now has way over 2 million installs. It’s a huge-scale multiplayer virtual reality universe in which players navigate virtual lives as avatars, meeting, interacting, and even, in Max’s case, marrying others.
“The relationship developed just like a real world one, and the feelings we have for each other are exactly the same,” says Max, who speaks to me between his real life part-time job as an office administrator and the ten-hour shifts he puts in daily on VR Chat. “I didn’t start using VR Chat with the intention of meeting someone – it just happened by chance, and now the part of my life that is about romantic relationships feels fulfilled.”
“I didn’t start using VR Chat with the intention of meeting someone – it just happened by chance, and now the part of my life that is about romantic relationships feels fulfilled” – *Max
When Max’s relationship became exclusive, he and his partner stopped dating in the real world too. They are not alone in dating exclusively within VR Chat: user Hybridninja7 has been in three VR relationships over the course of two years, and tells me that, while different views exist, it’s his opinion that “it’s either an IRL or VR partner only, as we see it as cheating”.
“These relationships do have the same feel as real-life relationships” he says, explaining that VR Chat offers a multitude of maps which lend themselves to the virtual dating scene: cinemas, bars, hotels, island resorts, nightclubs and homes make up just some of the available locations. And as he points out, “the added bonus of not having to pay makes it easier to have so-called ‘dates’”.
But while virtual relationships and the feelings underpinning them can be real and intense for those involved, the users I spoke to all referred to the real world implications of virtual love. Max and his fiancee live on different American coasts but are determined to make their relationship last by meeting up offline in the near future. Hybridninja7 explains that a previous relationship that didn’t work out due to “time zone differences and real life situations getting in the way”. And, as highlighted in a recent Reddit post, virtual relationships entered into by those already in monogamous IRL relationships can raise all the same feelings and issues as traditional infidelity.
The ethics here are complex, and still the subject of much debate, says Dr Trudy Barber, a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Portsmouth who specialises in VR and sexuality. “The foundation should always be respect” she says. “If someone is going to hide a virtual relationship, they’re probably also going to hide that they’ve gone to the pub and met someone there”. In this way, VR can become just another backdrop against which pre-existing behaviours or issues are negotiated.
This is a view shared by gamer Forge, who has been in a three year IRL relationship with a boyfriend who also uses VR. “Each couple has different boundaries as to what is and isn't cheating, and it's something to be discussed,” she says. “We have a mutual understanding that cheating boils down to intention. If my boyfriend were to meet someone in VR, it would bring up a discussion about what we ultimately wanted from each other, and how to continue from there”.
For the VR Chat users I spoke to, though, this isn’t an issue that arises often for them or their friends. Many spend several hours a day immersed in virtual worlds, leaving little time for IRL relationships. And those who are committed to real-world partners often play together, exploring the same relationship in virtual space.
Overall, users emphasised the respectful nature of the platform: some told me about an “underground experience” within VR Chat, consisting of erotic role-play using full body equipment and private worlds especially catered to fetishes – but all wanted to remain anonymous due to the taboo nature of this activity within the VR Chat community. A recently launched VR dating site, which works in a similar way to Tinder, includes a NSFW filter and rules against harassment and posting images of other users.
“The future is haptic and it’s immersive. The avatar will become part of everyday life” – Dr Barber
Dating entirely in VR might still seem alien to many of us, but as Dr Barber points out, the future may see aspects of IRL relationships and VR used for mutual benefit rather than becoming completely merged. VR can provide a “wonderful fantasy space” for people to experiment with gender identity in relationships, for example, “or for those who can’t easily get out and about in the real world”. And IRL couples are already embracing aspects of VR: Dr Barber points in particular to haptic technologies, which allow users to feel in virtual reality, by recreating the sense of touch via motion and vibration.
“A few years ago, people saw online dating as a strange, perverted new trend and now it’s part of normal behaviour” says Dr Barber. “The future is haptic and it’s immersive. The avatar will become part of everyday life”.