Virtual Worldmaking: A Phantasmal Media Approach to VRChat

Submitted to the Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing on May 14, 2021 in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Master of Science in Comparative Media Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Social VR expresses human subjectivities on multiple scales, from within its computational structure to interpersonally between users. Theorizing bodies as situated, distributed, and imbued with affect, this thesis analyzes how the systemic proliferation of the “anime girl” avatar in the social VR platform VRChat reflect gendered biopolitics of power and control. Positioning contemporary social VR at a unique moment of media convergence and sociopolitical unrest, this thesis argues for more pluriversal negotiations of virtual realities through the lens of virtual worldmaking.

Drawing from cultural theory and D. Fox Harrell’s phantasmal media framework, I unravel the boundaries between subjective experience and computational modes of being at the perceptual interface of social VR. First, in two auto-ethnographically inspired close readings of my experience in VRChat, I find that despite positivistic promises of heightened social presence, social VR reproduces gendered exclusions and discriminatory representational norms in socio- technical ways. In particular, the technical form of the anime girl avatar reinscribes fantasy tropes about Asian women rooted in techno-orientalist cultural histories. Complicating notions of the “anime girl” avatar as a neutral, post-racial virtual citizen, I instead argue that practices of proliferating whiteness and appropriating bodies coded as female are well situated within the harrowing realities of globalization. Understanding that avatar bodies possess affective investments with operative power, a material history, and technical agency is essential to developing more co-creative approaches toward virtual embodiment. I propose cybershamanic world-making as a creative praxis for constructing new, embodied knowledges by centering cultural memory. To conclude, I then present my work A Place of Care, a VR performance that centers the contemporary realities of violence against Asian and migrant women to consider how a greater respect for issues of transnational identity could forefront engagements with virtual space.

Thesis Supervisor:

D. Fox Harrell
Professor of Digital Media & AI, Comparative Media Studies Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL)

Manduhai Buyandelger
Associate Professor of Anthropology

Auto-ethnographic fieldwork – first encounter with VRChat, taking photo of myself as Shadow Woman, an avatar found on the public menu.

Spatial Thinking in Virtual Reality, Public Art, and Urbanization

How African artists are using virtual reality to construct critical narratives about public spaces

Keywords: XR in Africa – Afrofuturism – Arts Activism – Postcolonialism – Public Art


The emerging use of virtual reality as an urban art form is sparking a revival in spatial critique. Addressing topics ranging from expropriation in Lagos to public surveillance in Nairobi, a new wave or XR artists are appropriating the spatial dimensions of virtual reality to interrogate the neocolonial dynamics of urbanization. These practices form what we term spacemaking, or, the production of virtual space and aesthetic worlds in the act of narrative expression. These narratives range from postcolonial to futurist, vary in interactivity and forms of address, and center the pluriversal identities of the people and places that construct urban hubs in Africa. This study is a media analysis of five XR works produced by African directors or African-based artists/collectives. The countries, films and authors we will discuss include: The Other Dakar” (dir. Selly Raby Kane, Senegal, 2017), “Spirit Robot” (dir. Johnathan Dotse, Ghana, 2017), “Azibuye – The Occupation” (dir. Dylan Valley, Johannesburg, 2020), “Lagos at Large” (Jumoke Sanwo, Nigeria, 2019), and “African Space Makers” (dir.TheNrbBusCollective, Kenya, 2020). Our analysis includes a close reading of the techniques and narrative context of each production, coupled with in-depth interviews with the directors of each work.

Cavallo, V. and Kim, A. (2022) “Spatial Thinking in Virtual Reality, Public Art, and Urbanization”, The Journal of Public Space, 7(1). doi:

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