Virtual spaces of social interaction during pandemic

Authors: Michal Rzeszewski*, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland, Leighton Evans, Swansea University, Wales, UK
Topics: Human-Environment Geography, Geographic Thought, Urban Geography
Keywords: virtual reality, space and place, place attachement, games
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:15 AM
Room: Virtual 35
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic commonly imposed forced lockdowns and distancing measures changed the spatialities of social interactions for many people. This coincided with a large increase in gaming sales, particularly in virtual reality (VR) sector of the market, We hypothesize that this increase is at least partly due to the VR capability of inducing immersion, embodiment and a feeling of presence - which can provide the missing everyday spatialities. VR can provide space and place for social interactions in time when physical contracts are restricted. Im our study we have qualitatively analysed reviews of VRChat (a social VR game) posted on the Steam platform, both before and during the pandemic. Among common themes related to gaming features, glitchiness and toxicity of social interactions we have also identified explicitly spatial themes related to safety, place attachment and otherwordliness. Users describe virtual worlds of the game using emotional language that suggest bonding and presence of place attachment. In the reviews made during the pandemic there is a also strong theme of safety associated with virtual places of VRChat - a replacement of physical space that is no longer accessible or is perceived as unsafe. At least for some users, VRChat has provided a sympathetic and comfortable environment during the pandemic to act as a surrogate for social interaction during social distancing and isolation. Those results indicate the importance of geographical investigations of virtual worlds.

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