We Met in Virtual Reality is set solely in VRChat, an online platform that allows individuals to meet and interact via the use of customized digital avatars. In this 3D universe, users in a wide-range of animé-style guises get together to have drinks, dance at nightclubs, take American Sign Language (ASL) classes, and enjoy some time on rollercoasters and other amusement park attractions. They also strike up relationships, fall in love and get (virtually) married, thereby confirming that—for them—this immaterial realm is as “real” as any other. As a locale of endless, enveloping imagination and possibility, VRChat offers a glimpse at the future coveted by Mark Zuckerberg and his metaverse.
Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 21, writer/director/editor Joe Hunting’s documentary affords an intimate window into this secluded world. In VRChat, men and women from around the globe congregate in order to find companionship, have fun, and make lasting bonds with others, unburdened by the hardships, tragedies, disappointments and judgement that face them when they wake up in the morning. Unsurprisingly, it’s a place designed for maximum, around-the-clock escapism. Free from the discrimination, disability, alienation and unhappiness they wrestle with each day, individuals can engage in a fundamentally ironic experience in which, by casting off the shackles of their lives (and names, and physical forms), they can realize the truest expressions of themselves. It is, in its most basic form, an attempt at achieving authenticity through role-playing fiction.
Hunting began his portrait of VRChat in December 2020, during pervasive pandemic quarantines and lockdowns, and it’s easy to see why some—trapped in their homes, cut off from everything and everyone, and going increasingly stir-crazy due to a lack of social contact—might naturally gravitate to an online program such as this. Yet COVID-19 is not the main reason most of the users profiled in We Met in Virtual Reality spend countless hours residing in virtual reality; from their own comments, it appears clear that VRChat was a venue they frequented long before they became constricted by the deadly disease. As a habitat that promises limitless reinvention—and, in doing so, an opportunity to run away from less-than-happy circumstances—VRChat was already an attractive destination for die-hards, and the stories featured in Hunting’s film only further that impression.
We Met in Virtual Reality primarily focuses on two couples, known solely by their screen handles: belly dancing instructor DustBunny and boyfriend Toaster, and exotic dancer IsYourBoi and beau DragonHeart. In the case of the latter, IsYourBoi admits that she gravitated to VRChat because of her struggles with alcohol, which she overcame by channeling her needs for a high from booze to online dancing. In this choose-your-own-adventure environment, she could forget about her addiction—and it wasn’t long before she encountered DragonHeart, a man living 5,000 miles away (she’s in the U.K., he’s in Miami) who imagines how funny it would be to tell their grandkids that they met in such an unusual virtual-reality fashion. Like DustBunny and Toaster, IsYourBoi and DragonHeart have since visited one another in person, as well as have plans for future rendezvous, should the pandemic ever allow them to resume traveling.
Hunting’s overview of VRChat also includes passages about Jenny and Ray, instructors teaching ASL at the Helping Hands Club. The latter’s confession about the pain of his brother’s suicide, and the compassion and support he received in VRChat, serves as another example of the platform’s inclusive, inviting spirit. Around a campfire, non-binary space dog DylanP expounds on VRChat’s capacity for letting people exhibit and embrace different aspects of themselves, and to have control over how they’re seen and identified. In total, these users present a heartening vision of VRChat as a vehicle for tolerance and self-definition—not to mention for finding soulmates, as IsYourBoi and DragonHeart believe they’ve done, culminating in a wedding set in a virtual church and attended by many of their closest VR friends.
While VRChat might sound like the sort of digital sphere depicted in Ready Player One, We Met in Virtual Reality reveals it to be a far cruder universe, full of janky avatar movements and incessant clipping (i.e. bad collision detection that causes objects to overlap). It’s also populated by a corny collection of character designs that are dominated by robots and buxom, scantily-clad women with cat ears and tails. In appearance and design, VRChat comes off as juvenile, as well as infatuated with sexualized fantasies—a topic that Hunting and his VRChat interviewees conspicuously ignore. Most of those spotlighted by Hunting’s film seem to be from a young-ish demographic, although the director keeps details about his chosen subjects relatively vague; other than what they opt to share about themselves, we learn nothing about these individuals, which results in a self-serving snapshot of their motivations and attitudes.
“In total, these users present a heartening vision of VRChat as a vehicle for tolerance and self-definition—not to mention for finding soulmates, as IsYourBoi and DragonHeart believe they’ve done, culminating in a wedding set in a virtual church and attended by many of their closest VR friends.”
That narrow POV ultimately undercuts We Met in Virtual Reality, as Hunting addresses none of the larger questions that are naturally raised by this novel phenomenon. While it’s apparent that these people are using VRChat to process their feelings and experiences—in a telling segment, IsYourBoi and DragonHeart spend time in VRChat practicing how they’re going to meet at the airport in real life, and then subsequently reenact that encounter in VRChat—there’s no critical perspective on the underlying emotional and psychological impulses driving users to the platform. Since Hunting himself remains a silent witness rather than an investigator, the documentary never analytically digs into the strangeness of such whole-hog digital conduct, or the potential short- and long-term ramifications of fleeing reality in this manner.
Marry that with a lack of basic contextual information—Hunting fails to provide data on the size and make-up of VRChat’s user base—and We Met in Virtual Reality winds up feeling like a fascinating if shallow glimpse at a 21st-century means of coping with outsider-dom. There’s no question that DustBunny, Toaster, IsYourBoi, DragonHeart and the rest sincerely believe that VRChat is a liberating and welcoming home that lets them attain the happiness, and self-confidence, that otherwise eludes them during their flesh-and-blood day-to-days. Yet without probing the obvious issues at the heart of such virtual-reality immersion, the film only captures half the story.