A New Feature-Length Investigative Documentary by BrandonFM Looks at a Very Dark and Disturbing Side of VRChat

Every so often, something hits you like a sucker punch to the gut. This is one of those times.

Somebody alerted me to this brand new, investigative-documentary-style video on YouTube, and I started watching it this evening. Even before I had reached the halfway point of the video, I knew I had to stop watching it, and write this blogpost.

While it is titled The Dark Side of Virtual Reality, this one-hour-48-minute video is entirely about a single popular social VR platform, VRChat. The creator is a man by the name of BrandonFM (his channel only has 3 videos so far; after I finish watching this, I will certainly be watching his two earlier videos, which appear to be on similar topics to this new one).

WARNING: This YouTube video covers some very disturbing topics! Consider yourself forewarned!

TRIGGER WARNING: This video discusses sexual content involving minors, and will likely be upsetting to some viewers.

Brandon’s video talks about the hidden adult content in VRChat, which I have written about before here (ironically, this safe-for-work post by far the most popular blogpost on the RyanSchultz.com blog). And I’ve even written fairly recently about the Nevermet app, which is briefly mentioned in this video.*

This is a not-safe-for-work side of VRChat which I had suspected to exist, based on that previous blogpost I wrote about adult content in VRChat, but I had never actually set (virtual) foot in. But I never knew about some of the darkest depths uncovered here by Brandon—particularly where it involves minors. (He uses the word “degenerate” a lot in this video, and frankly, it’s the appropriate word.)

In 2007, Linden Lab (the makers of Second Life) underwent a public relations disaster when this sort of behaviour was discovered happening on its platform (item #4 on my list of scandals and controversies in SL):

The virtual pedophilia uncovered by two different news reporters in Second Life was a public relations disaster of the highest order for Linden Lab…Linden Lab responded to the crisis by creating an official Ageplay Policy, where people involved in ageplay and virtual pedophilia activities were banned from the platform.

Well, it would appear that a similar scandal may soon befall VRChat, once the major news media latch onto this story (and believe me, they will!). And, once again, a metaverse platform is going to be in the white-hot glare of the media spotlight, and have to scramble to address a public relations disaster. It’s happened before, and it will happen again.

So, I’m just going to post this, then finish watching this video, then I will add some more of my thoughts (I’m sure I will have some!).

UPDATE 9:06 p.m.: O.K., I have not yet finished watching the entire video, but holy shit. I’m really impressed with the work that BrandonFM and his team did in researching and reporting on these stories, as well as the overall editing of the documentary.

What I now want to know is: What has VRChat done in response to this video? Do they even know about it? Brandon posted it on May 6th, 2022, but it only has a relatively paltry 88,500 views so far (possibly because it does not have “VRChat” in the title?).

Also, this video talks about things such as slave auctions, something which (unfortunately) still can be found among the adult (18+) community in Second Life, despite calls from some people to forbid any slavery completely on the platform (pertinent thread from the SL Community Forums). In fact, there are numerous SL sims devoted to Gorean roleplay (based on the “of Gor” series of science fiction novels written by philosophy professor John Lange, writing as John Norman), in which slavery is commonplace.

What really struck me, in fact, is that VRChat is struggling with many of the same sorts of problems that Second Life has been struggling with throughout its own 18-year history.

O.K., back to the video…

UPDATE 9:48 p.m.: I finally finished the video, and I immediately became one of BrandonFM’s patrons on Patreon (here’s his Patreon page if you are similarly inclined). Seriously, this documentary was a trip, and this 58-year-old blogger learned a lot of things about VRChat that I did not know before (like the gangs of crashers, and the zoophiliac “hypnotherapist”, and the drug dealing, and the doxxing). The documentary is like a fever dream. My head is kind of spinning with it all.

Brandon did a masterful job of video editing (although the voice distortion used for some avatars interviewed made it a bit difficult to understand what they were saying).

My initial response after watching Brandon’s video is that, once this information becomes more widely known, VRChat is going to receive some serious pushback from parents and officials for its current Teen (age 13+) rating. It’s going to be interesting to see how much traction Brandon’s documentary will achieve, and what kind of impact it will have on the platform overall (hopefully, positive).

I also need to let everything percolate for a little while, so I am not going to delete any blogposts I have written in the past about adult content in VRChat, or Nevermet. I need to think things through, and not act simply as a knee-jerk reaction, despite how appalled I am at some of things that Brandon has uncovered. And I definitely need to watch his earlier videos!


* I did explicitly warn the people behind the Nevermet app that they needed to pay attention to the serious problem of potentially underage users setting up profiles. Now that I am watching Brandon’s documentary, which mentions Nevermet in passing, I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’m going to finish watching this video, then I might have to make some decisions about what to do about my review of Nevermet, in light of the information Brandon has reported.

I Was Interviewed by a Business Reporter for The Globe and Mail for an Article About the Metaverse

On March 10th, 2022, I was contacted by Joe Castaldo, a business reporter for The Globe and Mail (which bills itself as “Canada’s National Newspaper”). He was writing up a story about businesses entering the metaverse, and the current metaverse hype cycle, and he asked me if I would be willing to be interviewed.

After checking in with my union representatives at the university, who gave me the all-clear to go ahead, I was interviewed for an hour via telephone. The Globe and Mail had given Joe a Meta Quest 2 wireless VR headset, so a couple of weeks later, I gave him a guided tour of two popular social VR platforms, VRChat and AltspaceVR.

Well, Joe’s article was published in The Globe and Mail today, titled Is the metaverse the future of the internet? A Globe journalist steps inside to find out (if you should hit a paywall, here is an archived version).

I’m not going to reproduce the entire newspaper article here; I was mentioned in the final few paragraphs:

For Ryan Schultz, the widespread interest in the metaverse is a little weird. “My obscure, niche hobby has suddenly gone mainstream,” he told me. A reference librarian with the University of Manitoba, he spends a few hours every week strapped into a headset or exploring desktop-based worlds, and has been blogging about it for years.

Mr. Schultz finds the speculative nature of the digital land rush in some worlds off-putting. “People are investing in this basically as a flex and as a boast to their friends that they can afford these artificially limited items,” he said. Businesses with virtual office space, meanwhile, are likely spending money on a “really fancy three-dimensional brochure.”

He’s seen much of it before. Corporations flocked to Second Life when it took off in the 2000s. Coca-Cola installed soft drink machines, Toyota set up a car dealership, American Apparel built a clothing store, and IBM established an island for employee recruitment and training.

It wasn’t long before the corporate enthusiasm died. “Nobody came to visit these locations, because the people who were already in Second Life didn’t care,” Mr. Schultz said.

He understands the appeal of virtual worlds, though. When he first discovered Second Life, he spent hours there each day. Away from the computer, he has jokingly called himself an “overweight, divorced, gay librarian with diabetes.” At 58, he feels his body growing older, and he’s struggled with depression so bad he’s taken leaves from work. “I kinda suck at this whole reality business,” he wrote on his blog.

In Second Life, Mr. Schultz loved building avatars – angels, supermodels and a Na’vi from, well, Avatar. There was solace in becoming someone else. During the pandemic, he’s met his social needs through virtual reality, and a mental-health app became a lifeline. “I can put on my headset, join a group, and use cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to work through issues and problems, and it’s extremely powerful,” he said. “You feel like you’re really present.”

For those of us who are not already immersed, such moments are likely a long way off. I searched high and low for meaning and connection in the metaverse, but mostly found empty branding experiences, a speculative frenzy around digital assets, and people who were just as curious as I was to find out what this was all about, and were still searching for answers.

But given the relentless enthusiasm of those trying to turn the metaverse into some kind of reality, there will be plenty of chances to try again, for better or worse.

I think that Joe did a good job of describing the metaverse in a way that newspaper readers could easily understand, and there are a couple of videos included in the digital version of the article which made me laugh at certain points, as Joe and his producer Patrick Dell navigated Decentraland and Horizon Worlds!

I also appreciated that the online article linked out to my ever-popular list of social VR platforms and virtual worlds. I’m not really expecting a spike in traffic to my blog (I didn’t get one when I was interviewed by a writer for New Yorker magazine in 2019), but it was an interesting experience, nonetheless.

(By the way, I do receive more and more requests to be interviewed lately, because of my blog. I turn most of them down, but I said yes to this one, because The Globe and Mail is a major Canadian newspaper, and one which I read often.)

The Globe and Mail newspaper interviewed me for an article on the metaverse

P.S. The mental health app mentioned in the quote above is called Help Club; here’s the blogpost which I wrote about this self-help social VR app for mental health.

Nevermet: An iOS Mobile Dating and Matchmaking App for the Metaverse

Nevermet is a new iOS mobile app by California-based Cheerio, which can best be described as Tinder meets VRChat. The app, which launched on Valentine’s Day, had over 2,000 people sign up on the first day!

According to their official press release:

As now the majority of new couples are meeting online, a new and uncommon app comes to the fore. Enter Nevermet. It’s the latest kind of “limitless” experience making love connections more accessible for people through avatars and VR. The brainchild of co-founders Cam Mullen and Solaris Nite, Nevermet offers to redefine how avatars connect to form meaningful relationships. Mullen and Nite previously launched three social VR apps together, each of which has tens of thousands of users on the Oculus App Store.

The problem is, it’s hard to find a VRBF or a VRGF (ahem, a “virtual reality boyfriend / girlfriend”). Walking up to an avatar in a digital world, just like in the real world, is nerve wracking! It’s even tougher when one doesn’t know the gender or age of the other person, if they’re single, or if there’s anything in common. As Tinder made it easier for people looking for a relationship to find each other in the real world, Nevermet wants to make it easier in VR and the Metaverse. Nevermet is focused on enabling romantic relationships in VR, but users who are looking to make friends are also welcomed.

So how does it work? It’s just like Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, or Grindr, but the key difference is instead of posting content of yourself, users post content of their avatar — no human faces allowed. A profile (which must be approved by the moderation team), can only showcase an avatar. After creating a profile and setting the age and gender filters, users swipe on potential love interests. If there’s a match, they can then text to coordinate a meet up for a VR Date. One thing’s for sure: Nevermet isn’t a dating app based on natural looks. Appearance is off the table, and avatar movements, style and the sound of one’s voice takes the floor.

Of course, dating and matchmaking in social VR and virtual worlds is not a new concept. For example, I personally know of at least five couples who met because of the social VR platform Sansar! And Bernhard Drax (a.k.a. Draxtor Despres in Second Life) has a whole series on YouTube called Love Made in Second Life, where he profiles couples who first met in SL and partnered up in real life! And Joe Hunting recently premiered his feature-length documentary We Met in Virtual Reality at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, featuring two romantic couples in VRChat. I’m sure that many other metaverse platforms have similar stories. So it seems a natural next step to have an app like Nevermet, for avatars to meet new friends or potential dates.

While the starting target community for Nevermet is VRChat, there are many users who overlap with other platforms, such as IMVU. While the Nevermet app is for iOS devices only now, Cam Mullen tells me that there are future plans to expand to Android mobile devices.

For more information on Nevermet, you can visit their website, or follow them on TikTok. You can also follow Cheerio, the company behind Nevermet, on Twitter and Instagram.

Electronic Musician Jean-Michel Jarre Performs in VRChat January 21st, 22nd, and 23rd, 2022: Get Your FREE Tickets NOW!

Image source: the biography page on Jean-Michel jarre’s website

Just a quick heads up: French electronic music superstar Jean-Michel Jarre will be performing once again in VRChat! Here are teh details:

Jean-Michel JarreVRrOOm, and VRChat are happy to invite you to the live preview of Jean-Michel Jarre’s latest opus “Oxymore”, an immersive concert which will be simultaneously played at the Hyper Weekend Festival’s first edition @Maison de la Radio in Paris in multicanal format, and on VRChat in 6DoF binaural format, in an effort to bridge the gap between the real and virtual worlds.

Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxymore will be broadcast live on VRChat in Oxyville, XR capital of music and sound, designed by Russian artist Pavel Pavlyukov and produced by VRrOOm.

In both the virtual and physical worlds, the 50 minutes exclusive concert will be played on Jan 21 at 9:30pm and 11:30pm, Jan 22 at 9:30pm CET and 11:30pm CET, and Jan 23 at 9:30pm CET. In order to exactly match the real-world concert restricted conditions, each concert session will be limited to 200 people max.

The Quest-compatible VR concert experience is free to access on VRChat! Book your tickets now, on a first come firsrt serve basis; make sure you will be able to attend when you book your ticket, as the places are limited! Thanks a lot and we are happy to welcome you to this new, groundbreaking music experience in social VR.

Tickets are available for free, but they are limited, so if you are interested, get them now!