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 reflects 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 sociotechnical 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.
About Andrea Kim
Andrea Shinyoung Kim is an interdisciplinary researcher and multi-media artist based in Los Angeles. Her work explores avatar embodiment, virtual idols, and cultural identity, with a focus on performativity in social VR. She is an alum of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, MIT Comparative Media Studies, and Duke Literature programs, and is currently a Fulbright Open Study/Research Fellow at the Seoul Institute of the Arts, where she looks at storytelling models from Korean mask dance and shamanic performance to design culturally-informed virtual worlds. Her digital media work spans from immersive (XR) and participatory to civic media forms. Previously, she worked with the Center for Global Women's Health Technologies at Duke University as the director of The (In)visible Organ, a documentary film and an arts-based reproductive health education initiative.
Thesis: Virtual Worldmaking: A Phantasmal Media Approach to VRChat