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We Met in Virtual Reality — connections, community and love in the metaverse

We Met in Virtual Reality — connections, community and love in the metaverse
Jenny and Ray in 'We Met In Virtual' Reality. Image: courtesy of Showmax.

Director Joe Hunting explores the ways online communities are using simulated spaces to connect and help one another in this first-of-its-kind documentary made in VRChat. Gender expression, language and dance classes, and digital weddings suggest a kinder side to the metaverse.

Director Joe Hunting’s immersive film is rendered in real-time on VRChat, a virtual reality platform in which users can have full-body control over CG avatars and interact with one another across a variety of contexts and thousands of kilometres. 

Filmed during Covid-19 at a time when many people were physically isolated and struggling emotionally, it takes a strongly promotional stance on the burgeoning technology, celebrating its potential to create community, seed love, and connect people across the world.

An advantage of filming a documentary about virtual reality entirely in virtual reality is how effectively it enables “show, don’t tell” filmmaking, free from a clear narrative. Most interview participants in the film have trouble communicating in conventional ways, either because of physical disability or social awkwardness; but the film does not require them to explain themselves perfectly because the very phenomena they are seeking to describe are being played out for us as they speak — the joy and emotional support that the interviewees find on the platform is touching and easy to recognise, as are their unspoken idiosyncrasies.

When VRChat user Toaster tells us that dating his partner Dust Bunny in VR made him feel “comfortable in his own skin”, the irony seems lost on him — Toaster’s avatar has cat ears, white hair and a tail. This kind of tragic anecdote is often bandied around in the context of new technologies — whether it’s kids preferring video games to playing outside or social media users glued to their phones even in the company of friends. 

Yet, there is a difference between VR relationships and those two examples, because while social media users have the opportunity to talk to their friends if they just put down their phones, Toaster may never have found the confidence to be in a relationship (which has extended to the real world as well) if not for VR.

Dust Bunny and Toaster in 'We Met In Virtual' Reality. Image: courtesy of Showmax.

Dust Bunny and Toaster in ‘We Met In Virtual’ Reality. Image: courtesy of Showmax.

Toaster speaks of the privilege of being able to start over and be whoever you want to be, free of expectations. The other interviewees echo these sentiments. Dust Bunny teaches belly-dancing lessons in VR, and others facilitate lap dancing and improv classes, skills that many people wouldn’t have the confidence to attempt in real life. 

A non-binary person (inhabiting an anthropomorphic dog character) speaks about their ability to be themselves in VRChat without being questioned so persistently — there is more fluidity in how you represent yourself.

There is a narrative that VR interaction is “pure”, in the sense that people have enormous agency in how they present and can only judge one another based on personality. While this may be true, in practice it is undermined by the sexualised characters most users choose to inhabit. 

IsYaBoi and Dragonheart in 'We Met In Virtual' Reality. Image: courtesy of Showmax.

IsYaBoi and Dragonheart in ‘We Met In Virtual’ Reality. Image: courtesy of Showmax.

Although there is the occasional robot, chimpanzee in a suit or Kermit the frog, the majority of users take on the appearance of young, busty, scantily clad anime girls. A man defending his choice to embody a young female character addresses the issue briefly, but the popularity of this choice and what it tells us is never discussed properly.

Indeed, very few negative aspects of the platform are dealt with in any significance. We hear little about how VR has affected users’ real-world friendships or health. There is a reluctance to break the illusion — it’s not even explained how the technology works, other than that users have full body tracking, which seems at odds with a main goal of the film — to present the benefits of VR to the mainstream. 

The film’s rather obvious title is a reference to the numerous relationships that are formed in VR, but romance is not the primary focus of the movie — community is. 

The power of communities

The film opens with a bizarrely well-behaved boardroom of freaky characters at a weekly community meeting (chaired by a purple squid monster) in which participants explore VR worlds each other has created. Even for those familiar with RPG gaming, there are some aspects of VR role-play that are simply surreal, like characters ordering virtual drinks at a bar, but it’s easy to appreciate how it brings people together.

Dinosaur World in 'We Met In Virtual' Reality. Image: courtesy of Showmax.

Dinosaur World in ‘We Met In Virtual’ Reality. Image: courtesy of Showmax.

Probably the most practical use of VR explored in the film is the teaching of sign language — exactly the kind of thing one might have assumed would be difficult in VR because sensitive hand gestures are so essential. 

Jenny, an American Sign Language teacher with an auditory processing disorder, teaches classes of up to 60 people at once. The community, Helping Hands, has already grown since the making of the film from 2,000 to 5,000 people.

There are filming benefits to VR; for example, there are few sound mix issues and resolution is fixed. Hunting’s camerawork is surprisingly dynamic considering that there is no camera, only the interface of the VR platform, which is still pretty rudimentary, to reduce processing requirements and occasional glitches, superimposing characters or jumping through walls. While it still uses simplified avatars, in many ways VR is already highly functional and it is only a matter of time before the aesthetic catches up.

As we become more used to the vivid animated videogame scenes aesthetic, the novelty fades a little, so the pace of the film tapers off. The anecdotes of how VR has brought people out of a dark place also become repetitive. 

As a whole though, the film has much to offer. VR is a fairly fringe culture, even though it’s already affordable. It will surely have a huge impact on our lives in the near future. This overwhelmingly positive take on a space does much to break down the preconceived ideas many people have about the platform. DM/ML

We Met in Virtual Reality is available in South Africa on Showmax. You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

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