The ‘Mutes’ Of Virtual Reality Are Upending The Metaverse Without Saying A Thing
In this virtual world, you can dance in zaps of electricity, or in the clouds.
You can mold your body to your liking, and watch as cats or Hatsune Miku pour you a drink at the bar. The social virtual reality game VRChat is defined by this freaky free rein, allowing people to build original, expansive worlds of music, sex, and imagination. Players can inhabit whatever body they desire. They can do what they want, made braver by the fact that virtual reality’s consequences are comparatively nonexistent to IRL, and yet VRChat’s approach to conversation is run-of-the-mill. The game has no written chat function, and players mostly communicate through voice or or crude drawings. As the title of the app itself suggests, however, you are generally expected to speak to other people. It’s similar to the approach taken by our inflexible tangible world: be loud to be seen.
Still, the boundaries that real life places on your environment and body are easily broken here. Most of VRChat’s environments or worlds—which can range dramatically from a faithful recreation of someone’s hometown in summer to a rave where a bunch of Pink Panthers sniff an anime girl’s sweaty feet—are user-created, and the game also allows users to inhabit whatever avatar they choose. The end product is a bizarre but generative digital environment where people make whatever they can think of. Even the game’s social code is completely incomparable to real life. Sure, you’re free to throw some Adidas sweatpants onto your avatar and sidle up to anyone that looks intriguing, introduce yourself, and say “how are you?”, but that isn’t the VRChat standard.
In real life, for example, it would be considered poor form to shriek at a stranger for 10 minutes. In real life, doing this would make people call social services or run away from you. But in VRChat, when Link from The Legend of Zelda crawls up to you in popular The Great Pug bar and unleashes an unending stream of screams while performing impressive choreography, you don’t run away. Really, you go into VRChat hoping for disruptions or surprising shenanigans: The surrealism is what makes the whole thing so special. So when sexy Link came onto YouTuber JoshDub, he simply ran after him and patted him on the head. Then, when Link was gone, a Kermit the Frog using vocoder asked JoshDub if he wanted to “go rumble, rumble in the night, if you know what I mean.” This was normal.
Compare that to the real world, where it would be completely unacceptable for every stranger around you to start a conversation unprompted—much less harass you outright.
Most people, though, will enter populated VRChat worlds and experiment benignly. There are a few ways to make friends in VRChat, one popular method being role-playing as your character (usually people pick a hot anime babe, but you can be a giraffe or a cup with eyeballs or anything you want). Roleplaying can look like an understated shift in your behavior, like starting to nuzzle other players if your avatar is a cuddly critter, or can be as elaborate and theatrical as the Loli Police Department, a group of VRChat players who dress as little girl cops and even play-pretend arrest people.
If you’ve never excelled at high school drama class, you can also meet other VRChat players through coordinated events planned through Discord, or try to put yourself out there, unencumbered by the weight of your actual body. People happily dance with a group of strangers at an underground VRChat rave or compliment the texture on some restaurant patron’s gimp mask even if they would never be so brazen in reality.
But one method of VRChat interaction stands out from the rest, particularly because it’s subdued in an otherwise flashy, loud, and often hedonistic online space. I’m talking about “mutes,” or people who don’t speak in the game. The term “mute” in relation to VRChat seems to have evolved from its negative connotations in real life, and now people self-identify as “mute” without any gulping or eye-batting. According to the VRChat wiki, “because of how common mutes have become, the term is generally accepted in VRChat culture and is not considered an insult.”
Mutes’ approach to making friends is different. These players will occasionally use an animal avatar to justify an in-character silence, but they just as frequently will appear in VRChat as those hot anime babes or anything else they want. There’s noticeably less screaming and using full-body tracking (which maps the movements of your real body to your virtual) to make their PewDiePie avatar appear to eat its own butthole as a conversation-generating troll. “Mutes” tend to be softer than their vocal counterparts and instead form relationships by being very expressive and taking advantage of their emote arsenal. They are active participants in social events and games in this way, expressing the shit out of their avatars, rather than their voices.
The speaking VRChat community tends to accept them as welcome but unconventional equals, but in some ways mutes are the game’s equivalent of digital lurkers. Given that the program’s purpose is to socialize, a mute’s atypical way of participating can be taken as a transgression by those with more traditional social attitudes.
“There’s a surprising number of people who will walk up to a mute to try to force them to speak or make a noise,” mikequeen123, a Reddit and VRChat user with a history of selective mutism, told me. “I have a couple experiences of my own where someone will randomly walk up to me and scream ‘I know you can talk!’ over and over. Mutes have their reasons for being mute. Either physically, mentally, or by choice. No round of brute-force is going to make them say something.”
Some VRChat players debate whether or not they like mutes, ask mutes why they aren’t verbal, or pressure them to say something in-game. This line of questioning is somewhat strange to me, mostly because VRChat proponents will often tell you that the best thing about the game is the freedom. That freedom–expressed through VRChat’s many fantastical worlds and in the game’s zany social standards—should be conducive to silence, too. But being mute is such high contrast to VRChat’s ultraviolet maximalism that some players even find it offensive. But the rejection is puzzling, especially because mutes often have specific reasons for interacting in the way that they do, whether that’s having an anxiety disorder, preference, or insecurity.
“The fact that many people assume all mutes are ‘faking it’ is extremely hurtful to me,” CailanVR, who is non-verbal and uses a mix of Signed Exact English, American Sign Language, and a text-to-speech app to communicate, told me. In VRChat, she typically visits a sign language world that helps people learn VR sign adaptations and heads to the Cozy Boat, a dimly lit luxury boat, or The Great Pug bar for socializing. “I go through everyday life, experiencing a one-sided communication barrier constantly. It’s like trying to look through a tinted window. If you look hard enough, sure, you can see past it, but it takes so much effort to make anything out.”
But VRChat isn’t a bleak place for mutes, and community pushback isn’t the most common reaction to their silence. Some VRChat players identify themselves as open to this rarer form of interaction by correctly interpreting mutes’ emotes as a way of sparking attachment, or by interacting with their unspeaking avatar in some way—a touch on the shoulder, a hug. When speaking and nonspeaking players unite in this VRChat-specific way, a door unlocks to more fulfilling social interaction.
ASL is a completely different language to English and uses a separate grammar, method of word formation, and inflections, so CailanVR has difficulty with it in real life. But “in VRChat, we have adapted many sign languages to use the base seven VRChat gestures, as well as Valve Index controls,” she said. VRChat’s seven gestures, which include some basic handshapes like pointing your index finger or making a peace sign, are helpful in modifying some handshapes used in IRL ASL. You can use the fist gesture to nod your dominant hand to say “yes” or twist two pointing hands facing each other to say “hurt,” both like you would sign in reality (shout out to my ASL minor).
VRChat’s seven gestures are still limited, however, and widely available VR technology doesn’t allow for the salient facial expressions and mouth movements that makes in-person ASL intelligible. But this VR adaptation makes it possible for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people to communicate in their preferred language, and its simplification can prove useful to the people new to it.
Because of this ease of access,“VR sort of removes the big issues I have with signing,” CailanVR said. And for VRChat mutes who don’t use any form of signed communication, meaning can be prescribed to something as subtle as a smile or choice of outfit.
“I usually like to do cutesy things with full-body tracking, headpats, cuddling, that kind of thing,” Reddit user 1_5Jztourer5 told me. She is trans and uncomfortable with her voice, and was inspired to play VRChat silently by mute Twitch streamer AeriytheNeko.
In the game, she mostly enjoys 18+ parties and raves, which are as bumping as in the real world, but miss the claustrophobia and fear of spiked drinks. “VRChat allows me to be me… and just enjoy myself to the fullest. I don’t have to be concerned about my safety,” she said.
And being quiet but handsy has its advantages. “As someone blessed with phantom touch, interaction with others allows me to feel things and on occasion it does get my heart racing,” 1_5Jztourer5 said. “I cannot deny or confirm receiving and giving several lap dances to complete strangers.” Mutes get wild too!
Everyone I spoke to also stressed the benefits of avatar design for mute VRChat players. As every nonverbal cue counts for mute players, avatars are not only a method of self-expression or meme-ing, but a salient way to draw people in and build an emotional network.
“Having a unique-looking avatar surprisingly helps start some conversations when I’m running around public worlds,” mikequeen123 said. “People usually walk up to me with the first thing they say either being a comment on my jester avatar or the fact that I got full-body tracking.”
“My avatar is the most important thing to me,” CailanVR said. “It helps me with dysphoria (as a closeted trans person in Alabama, oof), and more importantly, it helps me communicate. All of my main avatars I create myself using accessibility tools from around the internet, as well as ones I’ve created myself. One of the most important ones to me are the KillFrenzy Avatar Text system that was recently made possible by OSC and Avatar Dynamics—it adds a fully interact-able and network-synced keyboard I can use to type to other people in VR.” When you type words using this tool, they appear in front of your avatar for other players to easily read and respond to, a makeshift way of introducing typed chat rooms to VRChat.
Uncommon social interaction rules the exceptionally avant-garde VRChat, and being mute allows players to develop what that custom looks like.
When you first hear about VRChat mutes, you might think of them solely as observers or less overtly obnoxious trolls. In AeriytheNeko’s streams, viewers watch an hourglass-shaped catgirl with flowing pinkish hair stare straight into the camera, sometimes for hours. She’ll shake her shoulders a little bit or dance to music that sounds like Fun Dip, but she never speaks. We see her face, body, and a lollipop that perpetually sticks out of her mouth, which rarely parts.
AeriytheNeko’s streams might make you feel like an observer to an observer, but her command of expressions and her extravagantly Rubenesque avatar help you see how she’s as dynamic as any other streamer. Her commenters, who flood the screen with observations and requests, let you see in real-time that it is possible to cultivate loyal relationships without ever whispering a word.
In real life, if you’re not making noise—if you’re separate or visibly different from a group—people won’t think you’re participating. Accustomed to our brash real world, some VRChat players will make this same assumption about mutes. Even though we all scroll hushedly on social media every day, commenting on and watching each other’s lives—on your phone, lurking is expected. But when you can see a person in front of you, reaching out for connection in a way you never would, quiet becomes novel. Players start to believe a mute’s inability or unwillingness to speak comes from a place of insolence or lack of fortitude, and they beg them to speak and fit in.
But mutes are showing us, and especially those creatives on VRChat, how incredible global, online communication can be. If you can do literally anything in VRChat— tangle tongues with a lewd batgirl or travel to the digital moon with a troupe of Five Nights at Freddy’s animatronics, then why not make social interaction exactly what you want it to be?
Mutes are more than observers, and they won’t be forced to conform to social expectations.
As one VRChat mute, KeeLymePi told me, “One of my favorite yet rare ‘social interactions,’ if you want to call it that, is sitting with another person, just listening,” he said.
“My character is quiet, yet listening intently, and I assume makes eye contact on occasion—not judgmental, just there to hold a hand.”