In the grips of 2020’s quarantine, filmmaker Joe Hunting discovered a group of people processing their isolation through the budding frontier of virtual reality. The metaverse is a newer enterprise in technology—one that, frankly, even I don’t fully comprehend yet. And that’s OK. The HBO documentary WE MET IN VIRTUAL REALITY is user-friendly for people like me. All I knew going into this film is that VR is beginning to take off, many people doubt it will catch on, and Mark Zuckerberg is spending a lot of money trying to make it a thing. All that being said, be forewarned: this review is coming from someone who can’t figure out how to sync his phone to his laptop and still uses a Hotmail e-mail address.
The documentary is filmed entirely in VR. We observe “players” in a game of sorts, each utilizing avatars of their design to not only explore but hang out in virtual worlds with friends they’ve made from thousands of miles away. Using full body tacking suits, players body movements are picked up and sent into the virtual worlds where every move they make is replicated by their avatars. These worlds include classrooms, bars/cafes, parks, beaches, and even strip clubs. The limits of self-expression are shattered in these worlds, which is why, it would seem, VR communities attract those who struggle to find a connection in their daily lives.
I’m of the AOL Instant Messenger era. To this day, the ding of an AIM notification awakens a very specific piece of nostalgia in me: late nights chatting with schoolmates and friends as well as people from all over the world. It would seem in today’s modern VR, a phrase like A/S/L would be incredibly outdated because, in this particular group of people at least, one’s age, gender, or location aren’t what’s important. These players, whom we never see in real life, connect to VR because they feel they can fully be themselves. Beyond the self-expression of creating avatars with tails, horns, scales, or hooves, without the pressures of physical appearance and face-to-face confrontation, they believe these friendships are even more genuine than if they’d met the old-fashioned way: in person.
The VR world offers some remarkable opportunities: dance classes, sign language classes, improv shows, and even a drive through a certain dinosaur-themed amusement park. This film presents VR as a fantastical safe space for people who might not feel safe elsewhere. And who’s to judge them? I remember late-night chats over AIM with people I’d never met and felt like I could be myself with them. I could chat with other queer people my age and express myself and admit who I was, even if it was to a stranger.
However, this, of course, presents its own dangers. The film never delves into the negative aspects of what VR has to offer. The internet can be a dangerous place full of trolls and impostors, and while the film briefly mentions the possibility of people not being who they say they are, there is no attempt at exploring this any further than a passing allusion.
The particular cast of VR players presented in this film are endearing. They seem like sweet, genuine people who’ve found a community where they can express their fantasies while simultaneously being their authentic selves. At first glance, they might seem like easy targets for being ridiculed, but the film showcases them in such a loving and gentle light the viewer can’t help but hope that this precious, kind world they’ve created doesn’t get overrun with trolls, bullies, and Zuckerbergs. In the end, they seem to have found what most every person searches endlessly for: community, support, love, and fulfillment. What right has any of us to laugh at that?
It’s evident that the technology for VR is almost but not quite there yet. Glitches in animation, as well as hearing players ask others if their avatar is floating or sinking, or if there was a lag in a dance routine, etc., serve as constant (albeit humorous) reminders that there are limitations even to this seemingly limitless world. However, I don’t think realistic VR is that far away, and I’m curious to see where this technology is headed.
Ultimately, the film showcases a Utopian version of the metaverse in a completely fabricated world. However, the poignant connections between these players seem more real than reality…and I think there’s something very beautiful to recognize there.
It’s available on HBO Max.