For this edition of FRONTPAGE, we're taking a deep dive into how the array of virtual nightlife events that have sprung up in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic are seriously shaking our cultural industries. From the immersive world of video game clubbing to the burgeoning market of digital fashion, it's clear that VR entertainment is here to stay.
The other night, I poured a glass of orange juice, arrayed a few crackers on a plate, and curled up at my desk, eagerly anticipating my first foray into what looks like the Next Big Thing in stay-at-home nightlife: a virtual rave. Combining the addictive escapism of video games with the rowdy rush of live music, it’s exactly the type of multilevel distraction you crave at a time of crisis.
The event was on IMVU, a virtual sim game where you can dress as a cartoon avatar. Logging in, I was shocked and amused; the virtual space looked more like an art exhibition than a video game world, intricately veiled in a storm of green strobe lights and covered with cryptic emblems and scary projections. I didn’t immediately grasp just how wild and far-out you can go with your appearance; I went as a bootleg Bojack Horseman, sporting a rainbow flannel and high-waisted blue jeans, along with a poncy gold chain and a proclivity for hitting the whoah (you can buy dance-moves in the IMVU shop — but I had no idea how to turn it off after hitting the button the first time and it kept repeating). Compared to everyone else, however, my ridiculous garb was understated and tame. Other clubbers dressed as bloodied cat-vampires and half-human cyborgs with purple wings. Watching them freak out so fiercely inspired me, and by night’s end, I’d dressed in drag and experimented with a couple of mutant looks. Although the entire event lasted around three hours, I popped in and out. I loved that I could leave to eat pasta with my family and the party would still be raging when I returned. The entire time, the crowd was hyped as hell, and the DJs played incredible mixes.
Although this was my initiation experience, virtual nightlife has existed in various forms since the late noughties, when a slew of shows were staged on Second Life. Yet it wasn’t until recently that the concept has been taken seriously and experimented with on multiple platforms. Hurt-Free Network, the group behind the concert I attended on IMVU, started up back in 2017. Open Pit, another leader in the burgeoning virtual events industry, began to host Minecraft parties the following year. Epic Games, the makers of Fortnite, booked Marshmello for a live set in 2019 and drew over 10 million viewers. Suddenly, the long dormant concept of virtual live music seemed commercially viable — a bomb waiting to detonate.
Then, Covid-19 arrived and brought real-world nightlife and live entertainment to an abrupt halt. A substitute industry sprang into existence in what felt like an instant. Now, there are dozens of IMVU and Minecraft concerts. Another Fortnite event, this time with trap superstar Travis Scott. A swarm of Zoom clubs. Live streams galore, featuring rappers dueling and DJs spinning tunes. Even TikTok parties, plus a stray Club Penguin throwdown. There’s an event happening in nearly every video game and medium you can imagine. All day, every day. It’s an arms race to see who can innovate the best virtual space.
But can computer-mediated events ever live up to real-life ones? One of the obvious downsides to virtual raving is the lack of secondary experiences. You can’t meet up with friends and journey to the venue. You can’t mosh, you don’t get that delicious after-feeling of dizzy bliss, and you can’t grab a post-show 2AM pink-frosted donut from Dunkin. It almost feels too easy: You plop in front of a screen and click on an app or type in a URL. Even though going to clubs requires effort and discomfort, there’s seemingly more payoff for that investment of energy.
But perhaps measuring the on-screen rave against the attributes of an IRL one misses the point; they’re completely different experiences with separate functions. “There are lots of things that make these online events more accessible than live events could ever be,” says Robin Boehlen, a core member of Open Pit. “The appeal partially comes from being able to do it from the comfort of your own home… you can connect with people across the world and listen to artists that aren’t touring where you are.” Similarly, they bypass the hassles and hiccups of real-world clubbing. Say goodbye to fake IDs: virtual raves are bouncer-less and all ages. Clothing isn’t even required.
For bands, virtual shows offer an opportunity to perform without the real-life annoyances of transportation and lugging equipment everywhere. The endless build-ability of games like Minecraft, Second Life, and IMVU also give artists an unbeatable palette of resources for designing their dream space. “Performing in a virtual world feels euphoric,” says 100 gecs, the hosts of the recent Minecraft rave Square Garden, where they partnered with Open Pit and headlined alongside Charli XCX, in the process raising $50,000 for Feeding America. “It’s like the zeitgeist is shifting the paradigm all over my future.”
Modeled off a mood board that 100 gecs sent Open Pit, Square Garden’s in-game venue took a few hundred hours to construct. The result was a striking forest with a panoply of pretty mushroom huts and a hulking tree in the center, designed to reflect their new remix album, 1000 gecs & The Tree of Clues. It’s the sort of utopia that could only ever be built in the sandbox landscape of a video game. “Our ideal world is exactly like the one at Square Garden,” says 100 gecs. “But the tree would be bigger.”
Instead of the thrill of watching performers and physically merging with a crowd of buzzed-up strangers, virtual raving has its own unique set of delights. One is the ability to type in a chat — it’s a very easy way to talk to people, with none of the impediments of a noisy club. Most games, like Minecraft, feature both Global and Private Chats. The former lets you address everyone in the virtual space at once; the latter lets you whisper privately to an individual. For introverts who don’t thrive in loud and crowded environments, virtual raving is a comfy alternative.
The best thing about the Global option is the spectacle of the chat pit. Instead of bashing bodies into bodies in the mosh zone, everyone spams messages in ALL-CAPS, creating a sea of screen-spanning text. When an anticipated banger drops, the effect is tsunami-like. “We want everything to feel hectic and chaotic, we want people to spam the lyrics of songs in the chat,” says Umru Rothenberg, another member of Open Pit’s core team and a DJ who performed at Square Garden as Umru. Although this doesn’t eclipse the brutal euphoria of real-life raving and moshing, you do feel surrounded by people as passionate about the music as you are.
You can’t stream music directly into games like Minecraft — to attend a virtual rave or concert, you keep the game open on one tab, and in a separate tab, tune in to the music running on the event’s Twitch or YouTube. As for the performers, they create their sets in advance. These are then live-streamed at the intervals advertised on the event’s flyers. Because it’s all pre-recorded, the schedule unfolds exactly on time, with no delayed switch-overs between performers. Another advantage is that people who don’t have the game can listen to the audio. And artists can attend their own shows, bopping around the dancefloor and interacting with the crowd. It’s not every day you get to see Charli XCX as a blocky avatar throwing diamonds into the audience.
It’s these interactive qualities of the virtual rave that make it so entrancing and memorable, a real event — unlike more passive forms of entertainment, such as tuning into a rapper’s Instagram live or watching a DJ or band as a YouTube stream. For those who attended Club Quarantäne, a 36-hour virtual rave organized by Resident Advisor, there was an array of rooms to check out, including “Bar” and “Cloakroom.” The bathroom was subdivided into multiple stalls, each of which worked as a private chat room. Decked in trees, ramps, and posters, the dancefloor itself was a three-dimensional space to explore.
“We gave ourselves the opportunity to explore virtual spaces using Unreal, a game engine, which, in communication with our HTML website, allowed for users to affect our worlds in a multitude of ways,” explains Sam Aldridge, one of Club Quarantäne’s visual directors. “The main question was: How could we create a virtual club space that not only resembles the experience, but transports it into the web, embracing a technology that gears the viewer to think about the future of clubbing?”
The culture surrounding an event is practically as important as the event itself. Club Q, for example, is one of the largest queer clubs on Zoom. Creatively misusing the videoconferencing app, Club Q has devised its own set of freaky features. One of these is what co-founder Andres Sierra calls “the jumbotron,” a sort of virtual rave equivalent to a sports stadium screen. Zoom allows the host of the room to choose which webcam to stream in the middle of the screen, making it both the biggest visible image and literally the center of everyone’s attention. When a club participant’s webcam gets selected, they become a momentary celebrity and freak out — just like with the blown-up shots of surprised spectators at a baseball match.
“It’s less about the celebrity who’s playing, and more a whole entire experience. The hierarchy between performer and audience is gone, and now the audience is part of the show,” Sierra says. “You have to see it in a different way from a real-life club… people come in and say, ‘I didn’t think it was going to be like that!’ Or, ‘Oh, this is way better than reading about it.’”
Inside Club Q, or any virtual rave or music event, you also benefit from an anonymity that physical clubs can’t offer. For example, while your real-world face may pop up on the jumbotron, your identity and location aren’t revealed. In a sense, this is no different from the Keyboard Warriors that inhabit message boards and online forums, talking shit and disrupting threads with impunity, because they’re anonymous and there’s no real-world repercussions. Except in this case, it’s a more positive and liberating form of anonymity: the Keyboard Raver. Being able to hide behind your screen is emboldening, allowing you to express your identity in ways that you might be too inhibited to do in real life. You don’t have to put your physical identity on the line.
“Whether they are chronically ill, have some sort of disability or mental issues, are closeted or living in a place with no queer representation, they now get to log in everyday and feel the energy of all these beautiful queer people,” Sierra says. “We created a safe space, a community of people… where we can actually be.”
This is perhaps the defining trait of digital raving: the unparalleled scope for self-expression some of these platforms offer its players. On Minecraft, for example, you leave behind real-world properties like height and weight, race and gender, appearance, and physical fitness — you’re simply a block, and you can design that block’s “skin” however you want. “When you introduce the idea of an online avatar and the ability to customize it, you open all these doors to let people portray who they really want to be, or who they idealize themselves as,” says Elena Fortune, one of Open Pit’s designers.
This malleability of the self is taken even further on sim platforms like IMVU, which allows users to represent themselves as endlessly editable, semi-realistic human avatars. “There’s suddenly an option to go all-out and have every possible way to express yourself at your fingertips,” explains Jane Angmar, also known as Mithril, a co-founder of Hurt-Free Network. “So many people that started playing back in the day came out as queer afterward, because they were able to express themselves in ways that they were never able to before.”
The self-styling capacities offered by digital platforms feels like an evolution of vogueing, drag, and the sort of everything-goes spirit of pride parades. These spaces allow you to become how you feel inside, externalizing through fantasy clothing and genderless avatars.
Technology has long been used in various ways to express queer identity in music. Producers like SOPHIE and Arca use Autotune and other digital processes to reach pitches they couldn’t with their regular voices and explore synthetic inflections — robotic, nightcore — that aren’t gendered like human tones. Sasha Geffen, author of the new book Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, has described this kind of vocal experimentation as blurring “the line between ‘natural’ and synthetic — which relates to the trans body... a lot of trans artistic practice focuses on that confusion.” Just as digital technology can play games with gender by altering the pitch and texture of the voice, avatar customization allows you to obscure your identity and create a self that has no relation to your real-world appearance.
Even without the unexpected boost caused by the virus lockdown, virtual clubbing would be deeply in tune with the digital way of life. As individuals, we are sometimes more invested in how we look on Instagram or come across on Twitter than we are in our everyday life. Nowadays, our lives are lived as much online as IRL, perhaps even more so.
Enter virtual fashion. A vanguard breaking open a new frontier for the industry, virtual designers create 3D models of clothes that are mapped onto images of the body. You can “wear” a garment without its fabric ever touching your flesh — indeed without it ever even existing in fabric form. In 2018, Carlings, for example, released a digital-only line called “Neo-Ex.” Purchasers would send in a picture and the garment would be molded onto this image and then returned. For each item, you’d get one fitted image back.
That might not sound like a good deal, but virtual fashion has one big thing going for it: sustainability. It proposes a pixel-sized alternative to the over 32 billion pounds of textiles generated every year, 22 billion of which end up in landfills, according to the EPA in 2017. “Virtual clothing is a product of information technology, which means it’s made out of data and uses no resources except the electricity to keep the machines running,” explains Florian Mecklenburg, co-founder of the design studio Goys & Birls. He recently formed NEW FORMAT, a digital group dedicated to exploring virtual fashion. “Once a piece is created, it can be multiplied—limitless. You can copy and paste the data, and everyone has access to it. If people accept digital clothing, they will rethink their consumer behavior.” Obviously, virtual clothing could never outright eliminate the need to wear fabric in real life, but it could help reduce the mammoth waste caused by empty, vacuous practices like fast fashion.
While buying and valuing clothing that you can’t touch may seem to some like too radical a departure from today’s mania for material, many people are already doing it without realizing it. Skins, the cosmetic additions you can buy for characters in video games, have been a staple of the gaming industry for ages. Fortnite makes billions of colorful skins every year that serve no practical purpose besides prettying your portion of pixels and perhaps giving you a little prestige among other players. Just as nightlife and style culture have always been intertwined, virtual fashion could become an integral part of the virtual rave experience. Open Pit has experimented with making merch in Minecraft, like vibrant band T-shirts, mushroom pants, and a Charli XCX wig. “I’m a fashion design student, so I’m able to find really cool ways to transfer real-life designs into the 128-pixel set,” Fortune explains. “It’s been fun to make things that people will recognize and enjoy, rather than just normal Minecraft gear.”
“In one of our earlier events, we had a whole line of streetwear-Minecraft creations with funny names like ‘Off-Wheat,’” adds Rothenberg. “We make all those items findable in the world, or we can have them automatically applied to you when you donate, because we have a software set-up that integrates donations with your Minecraft username.”
Many games have also begun partnering with real-world designers. Last year, League of Legends collaborated with Louis Vuitton on a set of skins. Animal Crossing recently worked with Valentino, Marc Jacobs, and the DJ Yaeji to release collections of clothing in the game’s shop. As long as humans fetishize commodities and care about appearances, a sizable portion of hypebeasts and shoe fiends won’t care if the items they buy exist in solid form. If a brand like Supreme or Saint Laurent creates enough mystique around an item, consumers will lap it up. The hallucination of cool that comes with owning a rare item from a chic brand has always been what these people were really purchasing — virtual fashion simply keeps the image and jettisons the solid product.
“I think at the moment we are in the middle of a race,” says Mecklenburg. “I feel like this is how the '90s must have felt to the web developers of that era. Nobody has set up the rules, nobody has explored it before. Who will be the first one to get the technology ready to make digital wardrobes accessible? Who will be the first one to build the iTunes or Spotify for digital clothing?”
Right now, virtual rave and virtual fashion are at a fledgling stage of development that only hints at what’s to come. The next wave of innovation will involve video games and apps specifically designed for live music. This platform will offer an infinite range of ways to style and modify your appearance, while also enabling the feeding of audio directly into the game and to other players. Like an amusement park, there will be a delicious excess of simultaneous events — museum-sized art shows, branded fashion shoots, exclusive music video premieres, influencer meet-and-greets, addicting mini-games — all of which you can enjoy while listening to the music. The experience will be interactive and ever-evolving, sending you surging through snowy taigas and underwater temples that sparkle in sync with the beat of the track. Most likely, it will integrate a combination of AR and VR to enhance its realism, and use 3D scanning and modeling to allow you to put yourself, as a 3D figure, directly inside the game experience with shocking realism. It might even involve a coordinated merger of the physical and digital worlds: a concert happening online and in-person at once. The physical space would live-stream the in-game activity on a giant screen — a jumbotron — and players in the game would do things to affect the concert space. And vice versa. There would be a completely two-way cross-contamination between the real and the virtual, a true back-and-forth.
For club owners and app creators, the challenge will be to create a loyal base out of fleeting visitors, who are less concerned about the club’s ethos and more about simply having an amusing activity to do with their friends while locked indoors. Given the overload of options on offer, there’s no impetus to stay at one event for an entire evening. Accompanied by a friend from another continent, you can hit up a noise-rock Minecraft concert, then slide into an electro-pop Zoom function 10 minutes later. Everything is flexible and customized to individual impulse.
Club Quarantäne is clearly doing something right, having “spawned independent fan groups, where people who met in the club are continuing to talk and share,” according to Finbar Mostyn-Williams. “It’s really succeeded in bringing people together rather than just delivering content to them.” That higher level of engagement is what creates the sense of community, making participants feel like they are active co-creators of the atmosphere, rather than consumers being serviced with a commodified experience.
As social distancing measures loosen up, there will most likely be a drop in virtual attendance as everyone savors the ability to waltz drunkenly in public again. But in the long run, virtual entertainment will only expand. It’s already shattered what many thought was possible to do on the internet. In the past decade, digital entertainment that simulates the tactile and surround-sound aspects of real-world existence has grown exponentially, from the rise of ear-panning, 8D slowed-and-reverb music remixes to convincingly three-dimensional YouTube videos. Now, experiments mashing together music and video games have created an entirely new form of digital entertainment. The virtual rave isn’t a fad — it’s a point on a much larger, longer timeline, a timeline tracking humanity’s slow, hazy descent into becoming totally techno-human, where everything we do in real-life can be done online with equal efficiency and enjoyment level, and we never have to move or leave our bedrooms at all.