We Met in Virtual Reality: The Social Benefits of Immersive Online Spaces

What unique opportunities does immersion present when we interact in virtual spaces? Virtual reality is the only means we have of including all social cues — both visual and auditory — outside of meeting in real life. Joe Hunting’s new HBO documentary examines, during a time of disconnection, how many people found community, learning opportunities, and a greater sense of inclusion using virtual reality as a primary means of social interaction.

During the last couple years of lockdown, folks from all over met on popular virtual reality gaming app VRChat (initially released in 2017, but continually supported since). It gets messy in the ways you would think it would yet encouraging in ways you may not normally consider. Shot entirely in the computer powered spaces of VRChat, the doc shows an alternative to the Zoom boom experienced by everyone else online, manifesting a commentary on how we interact in the virtual world and what that means to the people behind the keyboard, virtual visor, and full body tracking suits.

Following a few different threads of interlocking stories inside the game world of VRChat, Hunting fixates upon one server of online correspondence and explores what each person’s membership means to the wider group.

Most inspiring, I think, is the heavy focus on American Sign Language lessons. The doc follows teachers who put on daily lessons as an avatar standing in front of a crowd of student avatars who mirror the lessons. They take requests and show how to sign. For some of the non-speaking players of the videogame, it captures a unique opportunity they may otherwise never experience in life: a dedicated room for personal immersion which accurately captures their language and enables them to communicate online. It’s funny, of course, watching a large ensemble of anime-looking characters studiously replicating the hand signs and shapes of the instructor.

Likewise, for the disabled membership, the game presents an incredible opportunity to explore a social space with increased agency. The film lends a favorable lens to all matters of inclusion, its thesis seemingly that behind the avatars of VRChat are diverse subsets of people whose lives are better for their ability to explore relationships in virtual reality. Like so much of online communication, it is a beautiful platform for exploring gender identity, where people can try on any kind of persona, and may get to act out and feel the euphoria of being the kind of person they want to be in real life.

There’s also sex. Of course there is sex. Any form of communication is only as good as it is useful for sex. Virtual reality presents unique opportunities there. The spatial awareness, all these bodies occupying spaces, and every part of their body being tracked, means it has certain uses. There are exotic dancers (also just bellydancing courses available, like ASL), and like anywhere, there are tangible relationships that come out of this intangible space.

The film might get caught in the weeds around the relationships inside of it. It follows the cute development between a boy who pretends to be a toaster at virtual parties (and so, goes by Toaster) and his girlfriend. They experience so much of each other in this unique space. There is still the longing there. Eventually, they just want to interact without the game. Perhaps this speaks to the limits of virtual reality, or perhaps it’s just the wrong subjects in the right space, but ultimately the program has brought them together and we get to watch their virtual wedding. The game is everything to them and how they connect over everything. It’s all either very sweet or very obvious that this would just naturally happen in these spaces. But again, it provides unique subsets of the digital population opportunities to network romantically and find their own space in ways they may never have experienced.

There is also the ridiculous fringe material. It’s a virtual reality videogame from 2017. So every object clips through every other object. Nothing is stable and everything is fluid. That keeps it fun but eventually, we must inevitably tire of watching this representation of VR, flattened by the fact we are not viewing the spaces from the same perspectives of its characters. However true the documentary is about the stories of the participants, it’s impossible for it to be visually true. There is also just random videogame detritus and cringe-inducing online community aspects. Anime girls who ride around alone on big jeeps in pretty environments. Groups who tour Jurassic Park adjacent areas. Probably dozens of hours of copyright problems that the documentarian could not secure. What even would have been the footage that didn’t make the cut? Some of what did make it is suspect in its own right. Much of what is there is worthwhile but the rest lands between spurious and ponderous special interests.

Eventually you just want the film to put down the headset. Help us analyze the material it has spent so much time showing us. It only has the one perspective, in the gimmick of being locked in these virtual spaces. That lends it plausibly some credibility in capturing these avatars as projections of how the users really want to be. But sometimes you’re hanging out with space ranger looking dogs and a hot dog and they’re just saying this is them. Some of them want reactions. They want to appear as someone shinier, more curious and worth investigating, than their real life avatar. Without possibly breaking the sense of immersion that so crucially spells out why the technology is good, we’re left wondering if there was another way, even in the game (perhaps an in-game character can help lead us through this world, but also comment on what’s happening) and so without that, it’s just someone’s videogame footage of a seemingly special community that probably deserves to be seen in their actual context of use, using a keyboard, a visor, and tracking gear.

We Met in Virtual Reality shows the positives of a community that can be misinterpreted by online audiences and for that, it feels valuable for anyone in those communities. Whether it works as an invitation for others to join that space and the proliferation of these spaces, remains to be seen. If it all works out, we’ll meet in virtual reality.


Update: VRChat has implemented new anti-cheat software which eliminates many of the accessibility tools users enjoyed to make the game most accessible to disabled communities.

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