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“Observer” project


Two-faced Realities 


Ilya Sipyagin




As an introduction to my research, I would like to present publicistic and short-media view on the current situation with VR market and development on the alter-space field to clarify the background of my research.


“One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people,” wrote Zuckerberg in March 2014, that particular period of time Facebook was presenting virtual reality as the next step in the evolution in computational platforms. Even that the technology was deeply undeveloped it has a great potential to become a mainstream device in near future and evolve further through the wide spectrum of argumentation which participant can use.


Since December 2015 platforms as Oculus Rift break through “gaming comfort zone” and entered the illimitable range of professional experiences. Portable headsets started to be imported into education, engineering and become a modern tool for private business companies.

In his interview to “Guardian”, Simon Willies, head of the commercial, Currys PC World Business, says: “Although frequently touted as the future of entertainment, there is an increasing groundswell of support in the idea of applying VR technology to a wider range of industries. Educational institutions, for example, can use VR to provide students with immersive classroom experiences.


“For retailers, VR could revolutionize the in-store experience – and from an e-commerce perspective the potential impact is even bigger, allowing sellers to deliver catalogs and products straight into customers’ living rooms.”

An option to insert an employe directly into his working space means VR can be used as a highly proficient training environment.


However, from the personal field study, I can state that travel companies already imported virtual experience into their business. Thomas Cook , who’s company based at Bluewater, presented a new scheme for his clients , which named as “Try before Fly”. The main concept is to give client opportunity to experience the visual atmosphere of the place where he or she plans to travel through series of 360 degrees videos. Since the project is implied the level of sales increased by 37% and on 196% in terms of trips to particular parts of the world as New York.


This particular example I would like to use as a tool to narrow down the topic and concentrate more on the psychological and social aspect of virtual reality. In early 2017 Graham Gaylore and Jesse Joudrey created so-called VRchat.

“VRChat's gameplay is similar to that of games such as Second Life and Habbo Hotel.[1] Players can create their own instanced worlds in which they can interact with each other through virtual avatars. A software development kit released alongside the game gives players the ability to create or import character models from various franchises and adopt them as their personas.[1]Player models are capable of supporting "audio lip sync, eye tracking and blinking, and complete range of motion.”- that's the explanation of this platform from Wikipedia , which as far from accurate as possible. The first main difference of VRchat from other social platforms is full anarchy and really deep dive of players mind inside his “wanna be” state. However, before analyses of my personal observation diaries, we need to go through target group of psychological and philosophical theses.


Virtual Experiences Have a More Powerful Psychological Connection.

As Dr. Grace Ahn, behaviour researcher and assistant professor of the University of Georgia stated: "Decades worth of research has shown that very brief interactions in virtual worlds have residual effects that transfer into the physical world and change the way that you think and behave in the physical world.” Virtual World has a particular set of multiple factors which enhancing the connection. The participant will get experience first hand and with full control over his actions, which gives the powerful aspect of being self-endorsing. The VR personification is telling your physical self about the experience, and that is extremely hard to negate. According to that topic I did a quick evaluation of Philip Brey's chapter named

The Physical and Social Reality of Virtual Worlds. In M. Grimshaw (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Virtuality (pp. 42-54). Oxford University Press. Plus going through criticism which was made by  John Danaher. However the statement "the virtual can never be real" - this seems to imply that in psychology only radical behaviourism studies, ISTM  is a disposition to particular acts or perceptions is a real property and the virtual objects that the outside observer needs to parsimoniously explain and predict the actions arising from such a disposition borrow reality from these facts. Obviously, computers and other machines have real dispositions in this view. The VR object has the real property of eliciting predictable responses from you that closely resemble those as the physical apple elicits.


So coming back to VRchat. As a concept, this platform has a colossal potential, from technical, creative and humanitarian ways. Flexible open source engine (Unity), unlimited storage and much deeper interaction with working field give each user ability to express his artistic necessities , show it to general public without any restrictions which he would face in physical reality, and at the same time building the social base for truly equal community where each single individual can present himself in the most comfortable way.

In July 31st 2017 Godfrey Meyer presented first VR  Art Gallery Foundation for enthusiast world wide.


Whole event were hosted inside the VRchat , featured 16 main computational and digital artists plus more than a hundred part-timers.

Community developers unified and design  specific worlds, so they can be an virtual studios or even the educational platforms for users who are interested in painting, sculpting or coding.

This platform allows people to create and share their outcome or creative process without being restricted by distance, politics or finance.

Sounds like utopia? It is not.


Based on the information which was given to me by one of the core moderators (nick: Avadones) the original community was based on principle of explorers. People were testing features, finding bugs, fixing them and just having fun as one core group which can be compared to the traditional behavior of commune which arrived at uncommon territory. However after the platform experienced “explosive growth” during December 2017 the social agenda drastically changed to the side of disrespectful and generally abusive behavior.  The main thesis of my research is to investigate the possibility of inversion of the situation to the side when Virtual world will become at the same time truly liberal and creative comparing to physical reality and at the same time maintained as psychologically (or in the future even physically) safe ground for any newcomer. At this point two question appears: “why people doing that?” and “how it can be changed?”. To analyse the covered data I decided to use the interpretive group of methods which will be focused on the understanding phenomenon in a comprehensive, holistic way.

As a start, I would like to present the short statistics which I have done during my “Observer” series. I divided the general community into behaviouristic groups to maintaining the structure and hierarchy inside transformed VRchat.


As a 56% of community we have a group of “Newcomers”- people who are not familiar with inside structure of community and generally new to whole VR experience in general. Their behavior is generally stable and psychologically  referencing to physical world. However, that make them fragile to influence of already existing peer groups.

Rest 44% of VR chat community can be divided into 3 different groups.

1.-20% is “Solo”, this player came to the game to enjoy and use the positive opportunities of VRchat and in general helpful and friendly to “newcomers” and even their avatar appearance are less deviant and psychedelic.

2.-3% are members of society who may be not directly abusive to other parts of the community, however, their behavior showing strong psychological or even psychiatric instabilities which are represented through generally sexual expression and aggressive behavior if someone trespassing territories which they claimed as their private.

3.-21%- “Unstable” people who use the luck of authority to troll, abuse and dominate over the rest of community. Highly destructive behavior. (Experiment 2)


As a framework, I will use the set of standard social signs and evaluate each of them in relation to the virtual community of this particular platform.


1.Positional authority and laws.

Even that in a mean time Developers  recruiting a new member for moderation team, and publish the strict list of rules, there is no such a thing as a positional authority inside VRchat. This is simply because the platform is still highly undeveloped in terms of supervision and evolving quicker than originally was expected. For example, if you reporting someone the case can take from 6 hours to a couple of days, so it will be enough time for an abuser to change his appearance or nickname. At the same time IP ban is nearly impossible, as hole platform connected to Steam which means that technical support should report to superior before making any action. Moreover because of lack of time the moderators team as highly disorganized and sometimes even corrupted in terms of support of antisocial behavior. As a result peers abnormal behavior only increasing as they don’t face(in most of the cases) any penalties.



2.Hierarchy and crowed management.


You can question, how is it possible to have hierarchy into social platform which are generally a 3D Facebook?

There is the main mistake, there is several differences between being involved into social activity when you only see the text or static imagery and when you actually participate as a virtual object. Human brain analyses the sensorial data and reacts on the environment as it is physical. So when you're interacting with another person you brain receptors analyzing the visual and 3D sonic input and adopt viewers perception as it fully physical and taking further provoke “honest” empathy. This particular topic was researched and proved by Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and one the main co-researchers at Stanford University VHIL.

So after the drastic increase of population in VR chat particular social elements especially from groups, number 1 and 3 started to form synthetic diasporas. In case of group 1, the outcome haven’t put any severe influence on structure inside the community. However the so-called “Clans” leading by elements from group number 3  start to build anarchy based political regime on around 34% of servers involving more and more “newcomers” into their activities or even bulling people to join them.


3.Personal appearance and self-presentation.

Most positive and at the same time disturbing aspect of  VRchat society. The avatars can be classified as a first 3D self-presentation art pieces as the platform has no limitations in terms of computational resources. All avatar culture inside the virtual world can be exposed as massive uncontrolled performance where each participant not only an artist but a piece of art himself.

(link to VRchat Avatar gallery : )

Individual can shape his appearance and expose himself in the most comfortable way. In theory it should prevent or at least decrease any sexist or racist behaviour ,as its impossible to speculate on such topics when you are taking to Pikachu or some shapeless substance with tentacles.


However this concept is a double-edged sword, relating to individual psychology and social behaviour it can be used as the perfect tool of cyberbullying. Official answer of developers were strict :

However referring to question about social authority I can state that so called “hate groups” avatars are only rising in numbers. Moreover on daily bases you can experience references to pedophilia , suicide etc. which is highly disturbing in case that VRchat has no age limitations and you don’t even need to buy it.

Here is some footage which was done during “Observer” intervention (abusive language):

Experiment or secret performance?

Based on this data I would like to present series of interventions and observations which I personally did during my experience in VRchat.


1.Observer vs common user:

Target: compare the reaction of the general public on common behavior and after that request a permission to observe them with video recording. Side target -record a reaction on different gender through voice (with the assistance of  Yunjeong (Yunny) Jang)


1.infiltrate into a random user group and make contact through random dialogue.

2.(If infiltration was successful )after 20 minutes exposed to the target that they will be observed and recorded.

3. Stop any actions apart from following the members of the target group.

Results:(male voice 42%)(female voice 37%) of observed users detached from the main group and decided to leave the room straight after the statement was made. Only 12% (18%)of them were highly irritated and use abusive verbal or body language.

30%(47%) -ignored the statement and continue the dialogue. However, 23% (32%)of their group changed the topic of discussion and start behaving less confident and even theatrical.

28%(16%)- changed their behavior to irrational and chaotic, they try to block my avatar, blasting random sounds through the microphone and use any possible way to prevent my observation. On the question why they behaving like that were no direct reply.

Summary: Feeling observed making people much less confident and comfortable even in virtual space. Moreover their psychological response deviates from constructive to destructive, more than 88% of target group felt confused when I removed the tiny part of their personal space freedom, however, only 2% of people denied to take part in the experiment after I exposed the real target.

With the gender difference, the question is much more complicated. Even that people in general feeling more comfortable to being observed by the female researcher, the level of harassment and particularly nondirect sexism are incomparable with physical society. That takes us to the thrilling conclusion that even with an advanced social institute in the real world, the corrupted behavior is only suppressed and hidden deep below and far from being cured.


2.Destabilisation virtual performance:

Target: found the most peaceful server where most of the users are newcomers or solos and destabilise it. Record time and process.


1.As a target “world” I choose one of the VR cinema parks with the general population of 30 users.

2.Find the unstable social elements and gather them into the group.

3.Propose them idea of destabilisation through the common language and assure that it will give them more joy if they will work as a group.

4.Stop the target group and try to convince them to rebuild the space back.

Results: Server went down after 1 hour 28 minutes from the beginning of the experiment as one of the moderators failed to sort out the conflict.

Summary: Whole performance experiment went out of control when gathered group which contains 4 “Unstable” people coordinate their destructive behavior. When each of them was on his own their level of abusive behavior was on low level (random screaming next to talking people, non-abusive vulgar jokes). After collaboration their level of aggression expands drastically so they made and verbal assault on the random group of people who were discussing particular animation franchise, harassing them and using “face to face” dialogue (VR term which means your avatar standing really close to your opponents face, the main target to break persons comfort zone and increase the empathy). The destabilisation increases when around 6 of “Newcomers” joined the “Unstable” group copying their behavior. At the same time, general population of the server shows classical Bystander effect trying not being involved until abusers come to every single participant. The apogee came when one of the peers stoped all screenings and turned on pornography on every single screen. The most interesting point that after this user was banned by appeared moderator another player repeat his actions following the orders of the group leader. As a result, the whole space was suspended by the administration.

Here we can see the typical representation of negative cohesiveness which was defined by Rutkowski et al.

(video of experiment you can find on the main blog as its too long)



VRchat and VR concept is not just the new social network or some type of basic modern entertainment it is a post-modern computational art piece itself which contains the colossal amount of possibilities for future creative development which seems nearly perfect and at the same time contains all dirt which social media hiding behind the public activism and government laws. Analysing my personal experience in this environment I would like to state that at the moment VRchat is the pure source of information and inspiration for researchers and artists who are interested in core problems of society or want to observe the pure social evolution and development in the reality which may be not physical but shockingly real. Is it possible to invert it? Yes, but it will take it to the same level of control as all other media or platforms and kill the real passion which exists at this platform.  Should we leave it as it is? No, because a lot of innocent people will suffer from uncontrolled cyberbullying and explicit content.  As a result, I see only one possible way to some how to shape the problem. Developers should limit the physical representation and leave the virtual world untouched. What does that mean? At least make a proper moderation team and request age restrictions (for now there is none and moreover the VRchat is free for purchase).

As a conclusion, I would like to state that at the moment my research presenting only the top of the iceberg and further research will be taken. Virtual reality rising a lot of questions starting from University of Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom's simulation theory and ending with “Virtual Dream” concept which makes the relationship between VR and Lucid Dream. From an artist perspective, that platform has a potential to become new competitive media which will challenge physical art in nearest future.


1.Scientific American, “Are we leaving in virtual simulation?”


2. Hudson, James M. & Bruckman, Amy S. (2004). "The Bystander Effect: A Lens for Understanding Patterns of Participation". Journal of the Learning Sciences. 13 (2): 165–195. doi:10.1207/s15327809jls1302_2.


3. Batson, C Daniel; Karen Sager; Eric Garst; Misook Kang; Kostia Rubchinsky; Karen Dawson (September 1997). "Is empathy-induced helping due to self-other merging?". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 73 (3): 495–509. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.73.3.495


4.”How the Illusion of Being Observed Can Make You a Better Person” , Scientific American.

By Sander van der Linden on May 3, 2011

5. VRChat addresses ‘disrespectful or harmful behavior’ as racism and sexism rise on platform



6.THOMAS COOK Hannah Ellison April 10, 2017

Thomas Cook stages #GetintoSingapore experience at Bluewater




7. Hathaway, Jay (January 10, 2018). "How Ugandan Knuckles turned VRChat into a total trollfest". The Daily Dot. Archived from the original on January 14, 2018.



8. Alexander, Julia (January 10, 2018). "VRChat team speaks up on player harassment in open letter". Polygon. Archived from the original on January 11, 2018.



9. Forrest, Derek (February 1, 2017). "'VRChat' Is A Social Platform, A Dev Sandbox, And A Step In The Right Direction". Tom's Hardware.


10. (Amichai-Hamburger & Vinitzky, 2010; Landers & Lounsbury, 2006; Muscanell & Guadagno, 2011; Ross et al., 2009; Wehrli, 2008)

The five factors (Costa & McCrae, 1985) 


11. Are we the same online? The expression of the five factor personality traits on the computer and the Internet. Tim Blumer1, Nicola Döring2

1, 2 Ilmenau University of Technology, Ilmenau, Germany



12.The Construction of Social Reality by John R. Searle 



13. Brey, P. (2014). The Physical and Social Reality of Virtual Worlds. In M. Grimshaw (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Virtuality (pp. 42-54). Oxford University Press.



14. Dimow, Joseph. "Resisting Authority: A Personal Account of the Milgram Obedience Experiments", Jewish Currents, January 2004


15. History Will Repeat Itself: Strategies of Re-enactment in Contemporary (Media) Art and Performance, ed. Inke Arns, Gabriele Horn, Frankfurt: Verlag, 2007



16. Benedictus, Leo (October 3, 2015). "Hajj crush: how crowd disasters happen, and how they can be avoided". The Guardian.