Here I am, standing in the basement of a sprawling house full of stolen merchandise in Louisville, Kentucky, and I am not alone.
The house went viral a few months ago for being a hoarder’s dream: It’s a former church-turned-warehouse that was, until recently, occupied by a bargain-bin DVD reseller whose merchandise was not always obtained through legal means. It is a labyrinth of discount videos, wheels of bubble wrap, and hasty renovations leaving half-completed bathrooms and staircases to nowhere.
Turning a corner, I come upon a giant rubber dragon blocking a doorway, a huge beaming smile painted on his face. “Well, hello!” he bellows, crouching down to get a better look at me.
To my left is a robot with the head of a wolf, chatting with a floating husky; to my right is an aardvark in a Hawaiian shirt. Gazing beyond the dragon, I see a griffin, an otter, and a deer chase each other through the stacks, laughing delightedly. Behind me is a talking cat with glowing yellow eyes. These are furries, members of a fandom (largely online) based around all manner of anthropomorphic animals. Furries generally represent themselves as such creatures, from anime avatars to bespoke, real-world costumes. The cat is the one who brought me to this house — after turning me into a three-foot-tall rabbit.
These creatures are my tour guides through virtual reality, all of us simultaneously dispersed across the surface of the planet and also standing alongside each other in VR. The house in which we have met was originally 3D-scanned for real estate tours on Zillow; but then someone grabbed the scans and reconstructed them in virtual reality, allowing us to wander the mess together.
Tonight, we’re having a blast hopping from one VR world to another, dashing through one weird realm after another, laughing and playing and making new friends like children on a playground. The hoarder house is just one stop on our tour.
“It’s like the early days of the internet,” says Coopertom, the cat who invited me here. “It’s the Wild West, and anything’s possible.” He waves his hand, conjuring a portal to another strange realm, and disappears into its glow. I follow him through.
Growing up as a nerd in the ’90s, I’d become accustomed to VR existing in a perpetual state of being almost ready, a near-Holodeck that’s never quite panned out. In 1996, I strapped on a frame rate headset at Cybersmith in Boston and immediately got motion-sick; in the 2000s, I sampled tech demos at the Game Developers Conference, where cubes bounced off rainbow walls. Pretty, but pointless.
The revolutionary potential of VR was always just out of reach — until now. Over the last few weeks, I’ve spent countless hours exploring virtual worlds with a band of nerds who have figured out how to create the most satisfying, immersive social experience I’ve ever found in VR. The subculture that made it happen? Furries.
Their platform of choice is usually VRChat, an app available for headsets and desktop machines that allows people to gather in largely user-generated worlds. It’s by no means the only social VR app out there, but it’s the most robust and crowd-friendly (NeosVR has fewer users; Facebook’s Spaces app only allows gatherings of up to four).
VRChat is easy to start using since the base version is free and can be run on a PC without a VR headset. It took me just a minute to download the software, and then I was immediately roaming 3D worlds, bumping into chatty strangers and skipping through unpredictable portals. With just a few clicks, I was in Tuscany; then a dungeon full of glowing pink mushrooms; then on a dance floor surrounded by hamsters; then scaling the 20th Century Fox logo. Developers can create interactive elements with a custom-built programming language called Udon, and its widespread adoption has yielded a seemingly infinite supply of worlds to explore and strangers to encounter.
Furries aren’t the only ones using VRChat, but what sets their gatherings and creations apart from others that I’ve seen is how closely they resemble the messy, chaotic, wonderfully idiosyncratic fun of the World Wide Web in the ’90s. That was back when there was relatively little corporate control or even awareness of the internet, and early adopters had near-total freedom to create personal refuges for themselves and their clans. Furries were the vanguard of that cultural moment, and they’re at it again with VR — and this time, their numbers are far greater.
“You look up some old internet thing, there was always a furry running it.”
“We really were there at the start,” says Changa, a VR creator and greymuzzle (translation: a furry of a certain age). “I got on the internet in ’88. And I knew other furries who were getting accounts at colleges.”
Changa would sneak into MIT and Harvard networks by sequentially dialing campus numbers from his computer, one at a time, until a modem picked up. Once connected, he’d hop around in UNIX shells and would occasionally discover a MUCK — an offshoot of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) — essentially an early version of synchronous text-based chat rooms.
The MUCK that changed Changa’s life was themed around The Lion King. Users would interact as members of a pride, “like a couple Twitter accounts role-playing together,” Changa says. “It was the thing that finally kicked me into furry.”
The more time he spent online, the more Changa kept finding furries behind the scenes on every platform, and in every technology. “You look up some old internet thing, there was always a furry running it,” Changa recalls. “They were nerds who were desperate to communicate, interested in tech, and got online as quickly as possible because it was easier finding people with a similar interest.”
Those old keyboard-based chat rooms would eventually give way to social MMORPGs like Second Life, Roblox, and IMVU (which, until recently, owned the furry art site FurAffinity), and then to the mobs of furries running around in VR today.
“It’s crazy how easy it is to get into this,” says Firr, a usually-skunk furry who creates VR environments full of musical mashups. I wandered into his ’80s-tinged, neon-colored VRChat world recently and stood alongside various creatures as we chatted about concerts, car repair, and how I could repaint my rabbit avatar to sport my real-life beard.
Because of how hack-y and mercurial the technology is at the moment, advice from fellow VR creators is invaluable. If you want to design your own characters and worlds, you’d better have a few weeks set aside to learn apps like Blender, Substance Painter, and Unity. While VRChat is easy to pick up, authoring tools are decidedly newcomer-unfriendly, unless you can find a volunteer teacher to walk you through the creation process. As it happens, furries are all too willing to share their knowledge with each other.
“I’m in a couple Telegram groups with VR chat creators, and I’ll be like, ‘I have this issue,’ and I’ll immediately have four or five people jump on a call and screen share with me to figure it out,” Firr says.
For Coopertom, the cat who introduced me to VR, the fandom’s generosity has been a life-changing experience. Coopertom’s work went viral last year: After Rudy Giuliani held a fiasco of a press conference at a Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot, Coopertom recreated the environment in VR. Furries flocked to his virtual space to hang out, laugh, and blow off steam after the most stressful election of their lives, and grateful fans of Coopertom’s work insisted that he accept tips for the world that he created. Those contributions allowed him to pay off medical bills and motivated him to create more gathering places.
“3D designing never dawned on me as something I could do,” Coopertom says. “With VRChat, you have the opportunity to make anything you can think of.”
Coopertom’s first VR creation was based on a somewhat notorious photo of him and his girlfriend in the attic of an old house, in costume and crouching around a birthday cake. For a time, the dilapidated house was the site of regular parties — the kind of social interactions we’ve had to forego over the last year. After lockdown started, the nostalgia and loneliness were gnawing at Cooper, so he decided to reconstruct the site of those old parties in VR.
He worked all night on the environment, and the sun was coming up when he finally put the headset on to see how it looked. “It was the first time I ever saw something I made in 3D,” he recalls. Entering the world, he found himself suddenly transported back to pre-pandemic times, standing in a space loaded with memories — not to mention the potential for future reunions with friends.
In a video that he recorded as the sun rose that morning, you can hear Cooper’s voice tinged with all-nighter bemusement and exhausted triumph as he stands in the shabby room. “I didn’t think I could do it,” he says, shaking his head. “But I did.”
Not content with simple one-room environments, furry creators spent the pandemic pushing the boundaries of what the technology allows. (With varying levels of success: A friend of Changa’s created a teleporter, but on its first use the machine teleported itself away without him.)
One of Firr’s projects has been a reconstruction of the real-life hotel that, in normal times, is home to one of the largest furry conventions in the country. With the pandemic keeping everyone isolated, his virtual recreation became a popular gathering place.
“I called the convention center and pretended I was a contractor and got all of the floorplans,” Firr says. “I was thinking a couple people would show up, but I literally had hundreds of people that first night.” Those people started sending him photographs from past real-life cons, allowing him to reconstruct more areas of the hotel. He even added a virtual Dealer’s Den where, at normal cons, indie artists can sell merch. The virtual version offered cloneable avatars and portals.
Portals are one of the main methods of moving from place to place in VRChat; since there’s no search engine, users can share realms with each other by dropping links to worlds that they’ve bookmarked during their travels.
“It gave me those early-’90s webring vibes,” Firr said of his con hub. He’s spent the last year working with organizers of other conventions to build similar virtual spaces for use during quarantine and, hopefully, after.
A pandemic lifeline
Opportunities for socializing and remaining close to friends have been a lifeline throughout the pandemic. “Some nights we’ll go to somebody’s world they made and hang out and chat about music, movies, conventions, traveling, and that’ll be it,” Cooper says. “And some other nights we’ll be going out of our way to find the most crazy bizarre worlds to laugh our asses off at. Or we’ll find crazy avatars and keep changing them, trying to find the most weird-looking avatar.” Sometimes, he says, he’ll slip into VR after dinner, and realize when he emerges that it’s 4 a.m.
Firr says that furries, unlike the more mainstream VR user, can be uniquely focused on creating the perfect avatar. Rather than simply ripping a pre-built anime model, furries have created elaborate marketplaces for trying and buying different bodies.
“You can demo at FurHub, then you can buy it on GumRoad,” Firr says. “Then you have access to a Discord group that’s like a whole club. There’s more of an expectation that you’re going to pay and support creators.” This reflects an ethos that’s long been a backbone of the furry economy: Recognizing and rewarding artists. “Furry fans are fans of each other,” Firr says.
But as VR grows in popularity and scope, some worry that it’ll attract the wrong kind of attention — that of large companies. Just as the World Wide Web was freewheeling and unpredictable in the ’90s and early 2000s, more corporate control of VR could bring a crackdown on open sexuality, as it did with Tumblr and PornHub.
Firr has already noticed some red flags that suggest a corporatizing of VR spaces could be coming: Vket, a VR convention, was plastered with ads for real-life companies, not unlike the banner ads that have gradually overtaken many websites; a recent Disney pavilion required users to sign a lengthy terms-of-service agreement.
“The same thing happened with Second Life,” Firr says. “In 2013, when everybody was like, ‘This is going to be the new huge thing,’ Delta Airlines or someone had a Second Life world.” (Technically, it was Brazil’s TAM Airlines, a Delta partner.) “They marketed it as a huge thing, and nobody visited it.”
During the pandemic, in particular, furries have been free to create whatever weird worlds and creatures they like. But eventually, Cooper fears, “companies are gonna get their fingers into it, they’re going to pull back those freedoms.” If there’s a VR gold rush in the future, Cooper sees parallels with the recent worsening of YouTube’s user experience with an onslaught of ads.
“Before, I was like, ‘Hey, I made a silly video,’” he says of YouTube. “Now YouTube is like TV, you gotta watch ads, you gotta click and wait.”
But with the taste of imagination, immersion, and absolute freedom that VRChat has provided, the furry fandom seems particularly motivated to protect the spaces they’re pioneering.
For Cooper, VR is more than just a game or a social network — it’s as valuable as a cherished album of irreplaceable photos. “There’s no way to ever go back there,” he says of the house where he once hung out IRL with friends. “So it’s nice to have something to reflect on because we had so many great times.”
Firr hopes to see more community-generated social spaces emerge from furry creators. Where once he saw his friends working on games and highly structured activities, he says, “Nowadays I’m seeing a lot of furries make just chill-out places. Places where people will sit for hours on end.”
“It turned into orgies probably a month and a half ago.”
And for his part, Changa’s spending time on the cutting-edge of VR erotica, experimenting with teledildonic devices that allow users to physically stimulate each other from around the world. “It turned into orgies probably a month and a half ago,” he says.
Not all furries mix their fandom and sexuality, but a subset of the sexually adventurous have been tinkering with Bluetooth-enabled sex toys, connecting the devices to virtual triggers to produce sensations from afar. Lovense, one of the leading companies producing wirelessly controlled toys, has made developer resources available to VR hobbyists. Making it work is still quite technically complicated and involves a lot of tinkering with software; it’s not as user-friendly as simply hanging out in VRChat. But users who manage to get the devices working report an intensely satisfying experience, and are hard at work at streamlining the process in the hopes that less technologically minded kinksters will be able to join them in the future.
What a party
My evening with the furries that began in a Louisville basement concludes at a bowling alley dance party — the batteries on my Quest 2 are nearly depleted. As my new friends hasten off to the colorful dance floor, I take one more look around: A gaggle of anthropomorphic animals are throwing each other down bowling lanes; a man with the head of a Fiji water bottle draws flowers in the air; and a trio of dogs are rollerskating in a circle, laughing and barking.
CooperTom stands off to the side, watching the proceedings. His Four Seasons fame has made him an informal ringleader for parties like these, a role that he seems both comfortable with and eternally bemused by.
“Every time I put the headset on,” he says, watching the chaos unfolding around him with big bright cartoon eyes, “I have no idea what the night is gonna be.”