Community Leadership in VR

Whether traveling to foreign lands, going to your first day at a new school, or foregoing your material environments for a digital one, you enter that new space keenly aware that the standards of behavior you’re accustomed to may not apply. The rule of thumb is to be polite, but politeness cannot be readily interpreted as competence and, as you stand still, grinning, it’s plain that some activity is required to bring you into the fold, abetting some form of social achievement in that novel space.

It’s possible to learn through trial-and-error, but not everyone enjoys or is capable of learning from their mistakes. In which case, guidance is need to help us navigate the new environment. For travel, this was done through Lonely Planet. Traditionally, video games had user manuals, but currently this is done through tutorials in game (including VR games). However, when considering social VR, users operate among others in environments where the only clear purpose is to utilize the space.

Zone of Proximal Development Illustration

This reasoning has led some forerunners of social VR to put their own staff forward as living guides within virtual spaces for the benefit of social groups and its members. It could be that VR developers have knowledge of Vygotsky and his Zone of Proximal Development, a theory in which interactions with elders bring the uninitiated to competence, or maybe they reached the conclusion through critical observation of group dynamics, but the thought is that the progress of laymen in a virtual world will be tedious, time consuming, and uninspiring to new patronage in the end.

I’ve encountered two main methods of in-person guidance in social VR. In these example, they’re performed entirely (I believe) by paid staff of the VR platform, but future iterations of these virtual social platforms may find users taking leadership roles on their own.

Lisa and Justin Roilan (Left) Lisa at the Cyberia Film Festival after a makeover (Right)

One is what I call the teacher method and has the guide, generally someone with an official title, instructing visitors on the proper usage of that space. The prime example, one I’ve written on periodically, is Altspace VR, which is largely an event space holding concerts, standup performances, board game nights, language classes…you name it. Before each featured event, the Community Manager Lisa, or a standin, will address the crowd, telling how the event will unfold and what shall or shall not be done for its duration. This typically includes: when to ask questions, and how to use emojis or mute some guy who is fumbling with their microphone. Throughout the event, the Community Manager is on hand to resolve any situation and ensure the event proceeds unhindered by deviants from the pack. — I’m a big fan of Altspace, so read my blogs on them here, here, here, or here.

The second is what I call the Montessori method or the Nanny method, if you prefer. The best example I’ve found so far comes the recently available VR Chat, which includes strange avatars and user-generated environments that each come with a unique set of interactions. When entering VR Chat, you’re first taken to a hub where you’re met by other visitors and work to orient yourselves to the environment. On my first visit, I was met by a giant green ogre and, to my amusement, upon introducing myself they revealed themselves to be an actual small child. After learning to lift, turn, and walk, I found there were glowing portals throughout the hub and I entered one alongside a newly acquainted zombie with a British accent.

VR Chat Avatars (Left) Campfire Experience (Right)

We found ourselves in a small space residence, unsure of what to do. Before long, a small anime child with blue hair named Uvula ran into the room. I greeted myself, to which she transformed into a weaponized robot and began throwing potted plants around the room in zero gravity. The British zombie and I then played a game of Catch, then Keep Away with the objects around the room. After we seemed to be tiring of the environment, Uvula turned into an anemic goblin and waved me towards a new portal. I vocally confirmed, “You want me go into the portal?” And the goblin nodded an affirmation. The next environment was a functioning bowling alley with an extensive snack bar opposite the lane. Uvula transformed into an obese rabbit and began plucking hot dogs from the bar and eating them. I picked up a chocolate doughnut and offered it to the rabbit. It responded by taking the doughnut from my hand and rolling it down the lane as if it were a bowling ball.

I call this the Nanny method since there was no explicit instruction or rule making. Uvula did not even speak, but communicated entirely through body language. Their only goal was to showcase the environment’s potential and leave us to interact with the environment and each other.

There is no one best system for social VR and the techniques for facilitating group cohesion must be chosen based on the social structure you wish to build. The aforementioned guides, I believe, are doing great work and as other environments, like High Fidelity and Sansar, are developed, we can expect to see user mentorship also becoming an emergent property of the social network.