VRChat looks to be more compelling than Meta’s take on the Metaverse
VRChat, the virtual reality community that has been home to anime fans, Furries, and a slew of other subcultures since 2014, is a testament to the fact that Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of a sanitized, hypercapitalist metaverse will likely never be as compelling or idiosyncratic as VRChat. My main takeaway from We Met in Virtual Reality, the first documentary to be shot entirely in VRChat and which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival today, is that it is possible to meet people in virtual reality.
The likelihood that Zuck’s metaverse would allow people to wear trademarked avatars without paying a fortune, attend exotic clubs to receive (or give) virtual lapdances, or allow users to build whatever the hell they want is remote to non-existent. VRChat, as depicted by director Joe Hunting, is essentially a proto-metaverse in which anything is theoretically possible. It has also served as an important social hub for many people during the pandemic, a place where they can forget about the rest of the world, relax with friends, and perhaps even find love.
VRChat Metaverse is filled with diverse groups of interests
However, this has always been the nature of virtually every online community, and it will continue to be so. As social animals, we’ve always been able to connect with one another via bulletin board systems, Internet relay chat (IRC), Usenet, and the plethora of forums and chat services that populated the early internet. I spent the better part of the 1990s hanging out in anime and gaming chat rooms, the kinds of places that today’s connected youth would probably find amusing and nostalgic. Nonetheless, the people I met there assisted me in surviving the most difficult years of middle and high school. Those relationships, as well as the internet itself, helped to shape who I am today (for better or worse).
We Met in Virtual Reality demonstrates that, despite the relentless consolidation of Big Tech, the unbridled, experimental spirit of an online community is still alive and well today. Virtual reality headsets have replaced CRT monitors, allowing gamers to immerse themselves in fully realized worlds. Some of the most dedicated VRChat users have even gone so far as to upgrade their computers with powerful hardware, including finger and body tracking. I remember how happy I was in the ’90s when my computer had an extra 16MB of RAM and I could run multiple browser windows at once. VRChat users can now use American Sign Language or have their anime avatars perform belly dancing in order to communicate with one another.
No matter how outlandish their costumes maybe (do all anime gals need Dead or Alive-level boob physics?) Hunting approaches his subjects with an anthropologist’s eye. A chill hangout movie, We Met in Virtual Reality begins as 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. After two years of silence, one person credited their VRChat girlfriend for helping them “unmute” themselves. VRChat allowed an exotic dancer to cope with a family tragedy and an alcoholism episode, she said in a video interview.
This video explains why people would gravitate towards VRChat, especially during a pandemic, and it does so effectively. However, it falls short of capturing the wonder of discovering these environments for oneself. People riding virtual rollercoasters aren’t nearly as thrilling as experiencing them for yourself, especially when your entire field of vision is covered and you can easily get vertigo. But I don’t hold Hunting entirely responsible for this; his task was to condense the VR experience so that it could be enjoyed on a 2D screen, and the film is largely successful in this regard. In order to shoot the film, a virtual camera was used, which was able to mimic all of the functionality of a traditional camera, from focus points to aperture levels. In other words, despite the fact that it was produced in an unfamiliar environment that most people aren’t familiar with, it feels like a traditional documentary.
Since 2010, Hunting has been producing virtual reality documentaries, beginning with a few short films and the television series Virtually Speaking, which debuted in 2015. According to We Met in Virtual Reality, he is not just dropping into the community to tell a quick story but is a long-term member. Instead, he sees the humanity that lies behind the avatars and virtual connections that have been made. This group of people isn’t just escaping from their daily lives with virtual reality; their lives are becoming richer as a result of it.