Mark Zuckerberg's vision of a sanitized, hypercapitalist metaverse will likely never be as compelling or idiosyncratic as VRChat, the virtual reality community that's been home to anime fans, Furries and a slew of other sub-cultures since 2014. That's my main takeaway from We Met in Virtual Reality, the first documentary filmed entirely in VRChat, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival today.
There's no chance Zuck's metaverse would let people wear trademarked avatars without paying a ton, attend exotic clubs to receive (or give) virtual lapdances, or allow users to build whatever the hell they want. VRChat, as portrayed by director Joe Hunting, is basically a proto-metaverse where anything is possible. And for many, it has served as a crucial social hub during the pandemic, a place where they can forget about the world, relax with friends and maybe find love.
But of course, that's been the nature of practically every online community. We're social animals — people have always been able to connect with each other over BBS, IRC, Usenet and the plethora of forums and chat services that populated the early internet. I spent most of the '90s hanging out in anime and gaming chat rooms, the sorts of places that today's connected youth would probably find quaint. Still, the people I met there helped me survive the worst parts of middle and high school. Those relationships, and the internet itself, shaped me into who I am (for better or worse).
We Met in Virtual Reality proves that the unbridled, experimental sense of online community is still alive and well today, despite relentless consolidation from Big Tech. But now, instead of staring at tiny CRT monitors, people are slapping on VR headsets to explore fully realized environments. Hardcore VRChat users are also investing in powerful computing rigs as well as upgrades like finger and whole-body tracking. In the '90s, I was grateful to get another 16MB of RAM so that I could have more than one browser window open. Today, VRChat devotees can communicate using American Sign Language, or have their anime avatars show off their belly dancing skills.
Hunting approaches his subjects with the eye of an anthropologist, without any judgment towards their sometimes ridiculous avatars (do all the anime ladies need to have jiggly, Dead or Alive-level boob physics?). We Met in Virtual Reality begins as a chill hangout flick — we follow a group of friends as they have virtual drinks and go on joyrides in crudely-built VR cars — but it quickly moves beyond the novelty of its setting. One person credits their VRChat girlfriend for helping them to "unmute" after being silent for two years. An exotic performer explains that being able to dance for people in VRChat helped her grieve with a family tragedy and manage a bout of alcoholism.
The film chronicles how that exotic dancer, a young woman based in the UK, formed a romantic relationship with another VRChat user in Miami. These sorts of cyber relationships aren’t anything new, but the VR platform allowed them to do much more than trade links and memes over IM. They could exist in a space together, go on dates to new environments every night. I won’t spoil where things end up for the couple, but I can say that it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective outside of VR.
We Met in Virtual Reality effectively conveys why people would gravitate towards VRChat, especially during a pandemic. But it doesn't fully capture the wonder of exploring these environments yourself. Seeing people hop on a virtual rollercoaster isn't nearly as thrilling as doing it, where your entire field of vision is covered and you can easily get vertigo. But I don't blame Hunting too much for that; his job was to boil down the VR experience so people can enjoy it on a 2D screen, and the film is mostly successful in that respect. The film was shot using a virtual camera that could mimic all of the functionality of a typical shooter, from focus points to aperture levels. So even though it's produced in an alien environment most people aren't familiar with, it still feels like a traditional documentary.
Hunting has spent the past few years making VR documentaries, starting with a few short films, as well as the series Virtually Speaking. It’s clear from We Met in Virtual Reality that he’s not just dropping into the community for a quick story. Instead, he sees the humanity behind the avatars and virtual connections. These people aren't just escaping from their lives with VR — their lives are being made richer because of it.