She was studying during the lockdown. Then she fell into a virtual world
One young woman's story of getting addicted to VR
Our weekend read is about Georgia, a recent graduate from a university in Greater Manchester. Earlier this year, during the most recent national lockdown of the pandemic, she suddenly became hooked on the world of virtual reality — so hooked that she was spending whole days wearing a headset and living in computer-generated worlds.
She spoke to our reporter Jack Dulhanty about the experience, and what it cost her.
By Jack Dulhanty
In the depths of the third lockdown, Georgia, 21, took naps on a sun-drenched Caribbean beach and drank cocktails at busy rooftop bars. She would go to the cinema, go to parties, and then she’d fall back to sleep.
She had an expansive network of friends from around the world that she could meet at any time of day, anywhere. They would hug, chat, dance and move seamlessly between spaces filled with new and interesting people. They’d talk about balancing their working life, their university assignments and their seemingly limitless social lives. They would spend hours together, sometimes days.
Georgia still calls them friends, but she met them all while sitting alone in her student flat. They were her digital companions during the strangest episode of her life — one that utterly consumed her for a few months this year.
A new world
The first time Georgia saw a virtual reality (VR) headset was at her university in 2019. It was at a game jam, a contest where teams attempt to create entire video games from scratch in 24 hours. 20 hours in, they abandoned it and played the game Beat Saber on a nearby VR headset instead. In Beat Saber, one of the most popular VR games, players are barraged by floating cubes, and slice them with laser swords to the beat of a song.
She had only really got into gaming since starting her studies and thought the headset was cool. Amazing, even. She needed to get one. But as time passed she forgot about it and carried on playing the games she usually played: first-person shooters, story games, that sort of thing. Then about a year later, her ex-boyfriend got a Valve Index.
The Valve Index, a VR headset, signalled a milestone in the development of VR gaming. Its release was part of a flurry of high-end VR headsets entering the market that allowed players to inhabit larger, more realistic and, crucially, more immersive worlds. The headset is tethered to a PC, which runs the game programs that are viewed through a visor attached to the player’s head. She tried her ex’s headset and reached the same conclusion: she needed one.
She bought herself an Oculus Rift S — the go-to headset for a VR novice, produced by a company owned by Facebook. She picked it up sporadically, but it wasn’t until the third national lockdown, with local Covid-19 case rates sky-high and lockdown rules largely constricting her student life, that she discovered VRChat.
VRChat is best described as an immersive form of social media. Imagine, stepping into a nightclub full of people. You can talk to them, reach out to them, eavesdrop on their conversations. But in reality, you’re all still at home with a three-inch-long visor — packed with sensors, cameras and light systems — weighing on your head as you talk into empty space.
VRChat is free to play. It offers a space for players to meet one another, chat, play games and move around worlds created by other players. The worlds can be anything: a nightclub, a dance studio, a cinema. One Reddit user reported a world made entirely of baby's heads.
A player’s abilities in VRChat are limitless. As well as creating worlds, they can also fly, be invisible, mute other players or disappear from one world and enter a new one at the click of a button. Interestingly, despite the godlike capabilities VRChat affords its users, a lot of what players do are just simulacrums of real-life activities, like drinking in bars and going to the cinema.
‘I wasn't going outside at all’
Even before the pandemic, Georgia wasn’t really the type to go out a lot. She has suffered from social anxiety since school, which means she gets nervous when speaking to people and worries about what they are thinking about her.
As a teenager, she developed an interest in visual and special effects. She took courses at Gorton Studios, a specialist makeup effects school. She had an abiding interest in technology, 3D printing and visual design. By the time she arrived to study at a university in Greater Manchester, she had the edge on her peers. She looked likely to excel in the industry.
Her experience with imagined worlds made the idea of spending time in a virtual reality more natural for her than it might be to me or you. And, the premise of VRChat had a particular appeal. Numerous VRChat users have reported the platform helping them with social anxiety — in fact, VRChat lists this in its reasons to join. What Georgia mentions most in our conversations is the sense of control VR gave her.
In the real world, the act of leaving a difficult social situation would itself exacerbate her anxiety. “You don't have that issue in VR because you're in control,” she says. If she got too nervous when speaking to someone in VR, at the click of a button she could leave the world entirely. She'd find herself comparing the real world's volatility with the absolute control she had in VR, which only sharpened her anxiety and made her more eager to return. “It was instantly: I want to be back in."
Not only had VRChat become a place to escape, but Georgia had now formed friendships with other users she had met in virtual bars or on virtual beaches. Many were in different time zones to her, time zones that often bled into one another. As one group of friends signed off for the night, another group would just be joining. Georgia would stick around.
"At first you're just like: I'll hop on to see my friends,” she tells me. Over time, she met more people, visited new worlds, and started to do things she had never done in reality. "You can go to events that I would never normally go to — like raves," she says. "I had no interest in raves before I started getting into VR.” She watched movies with friends, went to parties or just sat chatting in a private world with a handful of other users.
VRChat offered unparalleled social interaction and a sense of escapism at a time when those things felt urgently needed. "All those things you don't realise that you can't do in lockdown — VR replaces that,” she says. She was alone in her university accommodation, which was small but not so small it impeded VR play.
She wasn’t seeing her flatmates as much as she did pre-restrictions, but she had friends in VR now. There’s less judgement on VRChat, people are more open to conversation. VR had begun to feel like less of a hobby and more like a necessity. "I need to be in VR, I need to go to this event, I need to go see my friends," she recalls thinking.
Before long, VR removed her need for the real world and she would go for weeks without leaving her flat. "I wasn't going outside at all — this was a complete replacement," she tells me, with her headset sitting on the table to her left. It became an addiction, or perhaps a dependency — during our conversations, we jump between the two terms. By her own estimate, she was spending 10 to 15 hours a day in VRChat. Day in, day out. It peaked with one session which lasted 35 hours, during which she only removed the headset to get food or go to the bathroom.
The sheer time she spent on VR inevitably meant she started neglecting relationships and her university work. “It was like a full-time job,” she tells me during one of our conversations at her flat in Salford. She began to put her headset on to sleep and noticed that she slept better that way. VRChat has dedicated sleep worlds: large, quiet spaces doused in soft blue light, where users can go to sleep together. Some people — or, their VR avatars — cuddle. "I'd sleep better in VR because of the company aspect,” she says. “People will just go in there, sit next to each other, and fall asleep." If anyone made too much noise, they’d be ejected from the sleep world.
Georgia wouldn’t have necessarily known the people she was sleeping alongside. They presented as avatars, which could range from a computer-generated human to a cartoon character or animal, all identified by online pseudonyms like Neko, DarkFire or Wolfie. Although she thinks that she was mostly spending time with people her age, the extent to which a user reveals their real identity is, as on social media, up to them.
As time went on, Georgia began integrating aspects of her real life into her virtual world. She’d watch her university lectures in VR, while sitting in a movie world, or a sleep world. She could connect her real-world desktop computer to a watch on her virtual wrist and connect to Zoom calls from VR; she once gave her fellow students a tour of VRChat’s worlds via Zoom.
Attending VR parties, DJ sets and raves led her to increase her alcohol consumption. Maybe one or two bottles of gin a week. She says she knows people who have developed drinking problems as a result of VR. She and her boyfriend, the one with the Valve Index, broke up. We don’t go into specifics about why, but she says her dependency on VR was a contributing factor.
‘What is the real world?’
There is surprisingly little research into people who have become hooked on VR. In the course of researching this article, I struggled to find academics or experts who have studied the kind of experience Georgia has had. A recent study into the dissociative effects of VR by the Institute of Intelligent Industrial Systems and Systems for Advanced Manufacturing in Lecco, Italy, said that the effects of protracted use of VR still need more investigation.
At this point, VR is still a relatively niche pursuit. In 2021, analysts expect 6 million VR headsets to be purchased worldwide, bringing the total number of installed units to more than 16 million. VRChat has around 2 million users globally, a fraction of Twitter’s 200 million and an even smaller fraction of Facebook’s almost 2 billion. According to Steam Charts, which tracks the numbers of players currently in a game, VRChat’s all-time peak number of concurrent players was just 28,596.
But today’s users are thought to be the “early adopters” of a technology that is going to take over the world. Consultancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, predicts that VR and AR (augmented reality) software will add $1.5 trillion to the global economy by 2030, with VR’s growth outstripping every other form of media. The headset market alone is set to triple in size by 2025. It seems inevitable that the dependency Georgia developed for virtual worlds will be replicated many times over if — as many investors and industry sages predict — VR becomes ubiquitous in our homes.
It’s notable that the use of VR for clinical and research purposes is generally delivered in small doses. A unit in Oxford uses VR to help people overcome conditions like agoraphobia and social anxiety by putting people into simulated social situations, or virtual crowded spaces, but staff told me they would never let someone spend more than an hour with a headset on. Commercial use of VR is no different. Virtual Hideout, a virtual reality gaming centre in Manchester’s Northern Quarter which I visited recently, only allows users to play for an hour.
When you type “VR addiction” into Google, there are reports and blog posts about the possibility of VR addiction, but it tends to be treated as a theoretical problem. I couldn’t find any major reports from reputable news organisations about users becoming dependent on virtual worlds.
And yet, if you look for evidence of this problem, you can find it. On Reddit, the massive online discussion forum, there are plenty of posts in which users talk about neglecting their real-world responsibilities and relationships in favour of VR friends and games, feeling disconnected from their limbs, and spending inordinate amounts of time wearing headsets.
“I'd see my hand out the corner of my eye but my hand wouldn't fully register that it was my hand. Still had full control and sensation, but it's like my brain didn't grasp that I owned it,” writes one user. Another person talks about almost driving into a lamppost — convinced that their car would simply drive through it, as it would in VR. Georgia says something similar. "You might be in VR for so long that you come out like: what is the real world? It's crazy."
Many of her virtual friends developed dependencies similar to her own. She spent multiple long stints, longer than 15 hours, with one user, who was about 17-years-old. Georgia would try to make sure that she went to work in the morning after nights of VR. "I'd make sure she's got an alarm set, or I'd try to wake her up,” she says. Despite being deep in the hole of VR dependency, some of the users she met were aware that they had a problem and were supporting each other to get out out of it.
One thing that Georgia told me has cropped up in the scientific literature. A recent study by the Department of Psychology at the University of California found that VR tech affects time perception by way of time compression — where the passage of time feels shorter. Time compression is also prevalent in normal video game usage, but what is unique to VR is how the player is disconnected from their own body and their own bodily rhythms.
The reduction in bodily awareness wrought by VR makes players less aware of the passage of time because they are less aware of the rhythms that form the very basis of time perception. This disconnect from bodily rhythms could also explain episodes in which Georgia — during days-long VR sessions — would forget to eat.
‘If I'm not comfortable I can leave’
When she first started using VRChat, Georgia played half-body, which means wearing a headset and controllers in each hand, her avatar’s movement controlled by a joypad on the left handheld controller. To play full-body — have control of her avatar’s legs — she needed trackers and base stations. Trackers are small devices that wrap around the ankles and waist, which are ‘tracked’ by base stations — sensors mounted on walls or tripods. When used with the headset and handheld controllers, users can move their entire bodies in VR. They can dance.
One day, Georgia was hanging out with a few half-body users in the Black Cat —the main world in VRChat, a kind of restaurant-bar space where new users are dropped. A friend mentioned they knew someone full-body and, later on, invited them. She got to know him, and he took her to a VR dance event. There, full-body users danced on stage or floated around the room dancing for people — including giving them lap dances.
She ordered some trackers and a new headset — an HTC Vive — and went full-body for about £1350. Within a few weeks, she was applying to dance at events run by VRChat users through Discord, a messaging platform. Dancers had to apply by answering interview questions — how long have you been dancing for? Why do you want to dance for us? — and give references. Once accepted, Georgia could dance in clubs created, owned and managed by groups of VRChat users.
The dances would be recorded, cinematically. She shows me a video of her giving a lap dance while presenting as an anime character — the popular form of Japanese cartoon — wearing a black, plunge-neck dress cut high on the thigh. Other dancers gyrate in the background. Spectators — often half-bodies — sit on low leather couches. They’re male anime characters with high cheekbones and multi-hued hair, dressed in three-piece suits.
VRChat’s dance community isn’t easy to penetrate, mostly because VRChat doesn't tend to advertise it, she tells me. It takes someone established in that community to introduce you to it first, hence the references on the dancer applications. "Someone introduced me to it and it was just a hook," she says.
Dancing in the virtual club helped Georgia keep fit. Before starting it, she was the kind of person who would feel out of breath at the top of the stairs. And there was the attention it brought her, which she says was not her primary motivation. Users would tell her she’s amazing as she danced for them. Didn’t that boost her confidence? "Oh yeah, for sure,” she says. The technology allows leeway for people who aren’t natural dancers at first. "It still looks good even if you're not a very good dancer,” she adds. You can pull a stupid face, and no one will know.
Nowadays, she has to be careful to keep a straight face. She got the idea to dance in real clubs and bars in Manchester from an American pole dancer who she met in VR called KuudereKitten. Georgia was working as a barista at a cafe near her university and struggling with the 9-5 hours because of her time on VR. She mentioned this to KuudereKitten, who danced in the real world as well as in VR, and she recommended Georgia try it.
Like most adult dancers, she works freelance. It’s flexible, she can turn up whenever she wants and the money can be good. Some dancers can earn £700 a night on weekends. She laughs at my slack-jaw and agrees that it couldn’t be a bigger twist: from socially anxious to this. "It's a huge flip but it also helped my confidence a lot,” she says, “and that helps a lot with integrating back into reality.”
She enjoys the work, and it pushes her to be more outgoing, having to approach patrons and sell dances. “I’d never been in a strip club before I started working there.” The job also shares some of what she first found so appealing in VR: "If I'm not comfortable I can leave, I'm not tied there. I can show up whenever I want. If I don't want to show up to work that night, I don't have to go. If I'm in a dance and feel uncomfortable, I can leave or get someone kicked out.”
Inside the simulation
Sat in Georgia’s flat, I’m surrounded by around £3000 worth of hardware. There’s the PC, which changes colour as it whirs softly — £1500; a pair of base stations on tripods, and on the table in front of me is the HTC Vive and controllers — £950. Then there are the trackers, which Georgia is wearing — £400.
She doesn’t play as often as she used to, maybe once or twice a week. Her use of VRChat has dwindled to the odd dance workout. A little after her graduation in July of this year, with the world fully re-opening again, her virtual friends began to wean themselves off of VRChat. Like any social platform, it lost its magic as her friends left it.
Around the same time, the wire for Georgia’s headset died. It took three weeks for the replacement to arrive, by which point her dependency had been broken by the wait.
Looking back, Georgia sees her dependency as a maladaptation to the solitude of lockdown, as well as to her social anxiety. "There was a lot going on in my life,” she says. “So yeah it was helping me in many ways, but it was also doing a lot of damage." Now, she’s looking to restart therapy, which she stopped during her dependency, to build a stronger mental foundation before making the move into the special effects industry.
She turns on her equipment and drops me into VRChat. I begin in a purgatorial waiting room, where I decide which world to enter. I let Georgia decide for me. The screen goes black for a moment and then I arrive at Midnight Rooftop, a sort of 70s style penthouse, with sunken conversation pits and tall windows. There are avatars everywhere, although some don’t load properly — Georgia’s flat has slow internet. I see Jake The Dog, a small yellow, pug-type creature from the children’s cartoon Adventure Time. I experience what is known as vection —where the body sees itself move but can’t feel itself moving, similar to when you step onto an escalator that isn’t switched on and sense yourself jolting forward.
Slightly nauseous — or, technically, cybersick — I get up onto the roof. I see an avatar presenting as Ben 10 — another children’s cartoon — and begin to get the eerie sense I’m in fact surrounded by children. Georgia later tells me this is normal. The users who run most of the worlds do so voluntarily and there’s little regulation of worlds that are supposed to be 18+.
I go back down and watch rain lash against a window, trickling down the glass in looping rivulets. I watch and wait for them to lapse back into a computer-generated pattern, they don’t. I wait. They do. I breathe. A small purple teddy bear flies past, outside the building. Then it swoops back to me and passes through the unopened window like a spectre. I hear a man’s voice ask if I remember him. I ask Georgia if she remembers this levitational teddy bear. She says no. I take off the headset.