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‘Uganda Knuckles’ overtakes VRChat

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POLYGON – “Ugandan Knuckles” has its origins in a nearly year-old joke, but thanks to an easily downloadable character model and the explosive world of VRChat, the problematic meme has been quickly spreading.

Ugandan Knuckles didn’t start out as the Ugandan Knuckles meme; the character is inspired by a goofy caricature of the echidna, who first made his appearance in Sonic the Hedgehog 3. The weird version of Knuckles made his debut in a Sonic Lost World video review from Gregzilla, a popular YouTuber with more than 120,000 subscribers. Other YouTubers latched on to the character and started to create “Knuckles Sings” videos, a series of memes in which the deformed Knuckles sang a variety of songs, like Smash Mouth’s “All Star.”

It wasn’t until September 2017 that a 3D model of the deformed echidna entered the world, giving birth to memesters everywhere. Still, it would be another three months before players of VRChat — Second Life-esque world that lets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive owners inhabit 3D models and interact with others in a variety of settings — latched on to the model, downloading it in hordes and inserting hundreds of strange Knuckles into the game. Using inspiration from the movie Who Killed Captain Alex, the meme was born.

To say that Ugandan Knuckles is a problematic meme would be an understatement; the players who join in on the meme phenomenon mock Ugandan people and culture, clicking their tongues, spitting on other players, chanting words like “Uganda” and “ebola” and taking on fake Ugandan accents. Phrases like “Brudda, do you know the way?” are often asked by players affecting heavy accents that are typically mocked by other players.

The goal for those involved in the meme, who play versions of Knuckles ranging from microscopic to 20-feet tall in size, is primarily to pester other players in VRChat, going up to random people in public rooms and annoying them. When asked by other players what their purpose is, many people playing the role of Ugandan Knuckles respond by saying they need to “find the way” and rescue their queen.

When Ugandan Knuckles came to prominence in VRChat in late December, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Although there were plenty of Knuckles in sight, the quantity of models wasn’t high enough to really impact people’s games. Between Dec. 23 and Jan. 1, 2018, however, the meme became inescapable and quickly gained attention from Twitch viewers, who inundated Reddit with posts about the strange, disfigured echidna.

Regardless of what the intention of the meme is, the result is blatantly racist.

The Ugandan Knuckles meme has reached a point where its offensiveness and annoyance has bothered a majority of VRChat users. There are reports that some players will block any Ugandan Knuckles from being able to interact with them in a public room upon sight.

The 3D model’s creator, an artist who goes by Tidiestflyer on DeviantArt, has since commented on the meme on Twitter. In response to a video of a Ugandan Knuckles driving around in a tank as other 3D characters appear alongside him, Tidiestflyer saidthat it was “great to see my model has gone down the drain real fast.”

As different versions of the meme appear, comparisons have been made to early Habbo Hotel raids carried out by 4chan’s notorious /b/ forum. The first raid was launched in July 2006, and featured many members of 4chan’s /b/ community appearing in droves at some of Habbo Hotel’s most popular hangouts. As the raids gained prominence and support, it got to the point where people wouldn’t be able to access the pool because it was over capacity. This led to the infamous phrase, “pool’s closed,” which demonstrated the successful overtaking of Habbo Hotel’s popular poolside hangout.

There are notable differences between the “pool’s closed” raid and Ugandan Knuckles meme. Whereas the latter is an attempt to disrupt and annoy for no other purpose than to cause a disturbance, the “pool’s closed” raids were reportedly organized in an attempt to protest Habbo Hotel moderators alleged tacticsto keep darker-skinned avatars out of the pool area. The “pool’s closed” protest was an organized attempt to show create human blockades and cause chaos, but was in itself problematic and incredibly offensive; whereas players taking on the role of Ugandan Knuckles are more scattered in their swarms, trying to annoy as many people as possible.

Some VRChat users are suggesting that the developer, VRChat Inc., could ban the use of Ugandan Knuckles avatar in the games, much like how the developers behind Habbo Hotel did back in the mid-2000s. VRChat Inc.’s latest patch notes for the game released on Jan. 6, however, don’t mention the forbiddance of Ugandan Knuckles. An earlier statement from VRChat Inc. did specify that “hatred and other negative behavior that negatively affect the VRChat community do not have a place” in the game.

The VRChat community is something special. It lets people truly be themselves, without fear of judgement or hate, to connect with people from all cultures and mindsets. It is our policy to take action against individuals who engage in, or promote, this kind of behavior. We have taken action on a select few accounts in light of recent events. We are still in the early stages of this community and are excited to see where we go from here.

Like most memes, Ugandan Knuckles is sure to get tiresome quickly, but Polygon has reached out to VRChat Inc. for more information on a possible plan of action regarding the echidna invasion.

Players in VRChat do have the ability to block other players if they don’t want to engage with them. Instructions on how to do block a player can be read on VRChat Inc.’s FAQ page.

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