HBO Max Documentary Review: We Met in Virtual Reality

This evening, I finally had an opportunity to watch Joe Hunting’s full-length documentary, We Met in Virtual Reality, which I first wrote about last year. This is my review of that documentary.

Here’s an overview of Joe’s film, taken from his IndieGogo page:

We Met in Virtual Reality is an enchanting portrait of social Virtual Reality (VR) app VRChat, composed of intimate and hilarious moments inside global VR communities. The film presents an emotive impression on this new virtual landscape through a poetic collage of stories, exploring how VR is affecting the way we socialise, work, love and express ourselves; told authentically by the users of VRChat through a warm heartfelt lens. 

The overall narrative is made up of three distinct protagonists each presenting unique stories of discovering a romantic relationship through VRChat, and using VR to cope with poor mental health. These core narratives flow between each other in a linear fashion through Winter 2020 to Summer 2021, delivering a compelling journey amidst the more observational moments in other VR communities.

Filmed entirely inside VRChat using cinematic virtual cameras during the COVID lockdown crisis, this film captures a precious time in an underground cultural movement that will soon shape the world we live in; additionally highlighting contemporary subjects such as of coping with poor mental health, modern forms of sign language, non-binary gender expression and finding love beyond physical interaction. Everyone appearing in the film will be addressed by their virtual usernames without any real life imagery, immersing audiences into a new cinematic documentary experience.

This documentary has three main storylines: the American Sign Language (ASL) teachers teachers Jenny0629 and Ray_is_Deaf, who work at Helping Hands; one couple, DustBunny and Toaster; and a second couple, IsYourBoi and DragonHeart. Both couples first met each other within VRChat. In addition, there are many cameos of a number of other characters, who candidly discuss various aspects of being an avatar on a social VR platform.

Among the worlds explored are a dinosaur theme park, a camel ride through the desert, an improv comedy stage show, a New Year’s Eve countdown celebration, and the Zodiac Club, an exotic dance club. Many of the avatars shown have eye, finger and even full-body tracking, which gives the viewer a really good idea of what you can accomplish in VR (for example, shooting a game of pool, or taking part in a belly-dancing lesson!). This film will be a real eye-opener to the metaverse neophyte who might have thought that being in virtual reality meant that you would be limited to only moving your head and your hands!

There are moments of glorious hijinks in this documentary, as well as some sombre discussions of mental health issues. Joe does a masterful job of editing, moving smoothly from one story to another, and he wisely gives the people he profiles the time and space required for them to tell their stories, each in their own fashion. It’s been a joy to see Joe Hunting burnish his skills as a documentary filmmaker over time!

The decision was made to film the entire documentary in VRChat, so there is no jarring back-and-forth between the virtual world and the real. In fact, one of the underlying messages of We Met in Virtual Reality is that the virtual can, in fact, become the real. The communities and relationships Joe documents are just as authentic as any in the real world! (While this will not come as a surprise to any of my blog readers, many of whom already have experience in countless virtual worlds, it might come as a shock to those who have not yet set foot in the metaverse.)

In fact, the outreach potential of having Joe’s documentary available on a major TV/movie streaming service such as HBO Max means that a lot more people will learn about social VR and the metaverse in general, and VRChat in particular!

I do find it ironic that this documentary—which focuses so wonderfully on the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community of Helping Hands—has been released on HBO Max at the very moment when the VRChat community is in an uproar over an update which has disabled many popular mods intended to serve the Deaf and hard-of-hearing, providing core functionality which the official VRChat client still lacks.

The documentary is available in both closed-caption and described-video versions, and you can watch it on HBO Max in the United States, and through Crave TV in Canada (which carries HBO content). Here’s a list of the other countries where HBO Max is available.

Joe Hunting has crafted a love letter to VRChat, and if you watch only one film about the metaverse this year, We Met in Virtual Reality is that film. Highly recommended, particularly if you are brand new to social VR and VRChat. I give it five stars out of five! ★★★★★

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.

Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times: A New, Feature-Length Documentary by Draxtor Despres Looks at Second Life and Animal Crossing Users During the Coronavirus Pandemic

HOUSEKEEPING NOTE: The RyanSchultz.com blog will be on an indefinite hiatus, as I am working on a brand new project: writing up a proposal for a VR lab for my university library system! More details here. I’ll be back as soon as I can, folks!

Image source: the official website for the documentary

The full-length documentary by Bernhard Drax (a.k.a. Draxtor Despres in Second Life), titled Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times, has now been released on YouTube, where you can watch it for free! (I first wrote about the film here.)

It’s 1 hour and 24 minutes long, so go get yourself some popcorn, and settle in!

According to the official website for the film:

Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times is a new feature length documentary by media maker Draxtor.

Since March 2020, Draxtor has been following researchers Tom Boellstorff, Evan Conaway, Chandra Middleton and Sandy Wenger (based in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine) around Animal Crossing and Second Life to find out how COVID-19 is reshaping online interaction.

In the 85 minute film, protagonists from all over the world speak openly about their anxieties and everyday challenges during this global crises and about what virtual worlds and social games mean to them in the context of a pandemic.

Mixed reality interviews and group discussions provide the basis for a sprawling narrative: a mosaic of impressions, shared by people from all walks of life, some well known figures from science, arts and culture, some just regular folks (like the research team itself), trying to make sense of a new age dominated by uncertainty and physical isolation.

Enjoy!

P.S. If you watch the documentary, you can see my main SL avatar, Vanity Fair, sitting in the audience at the Virtual Ability 10th Annual Mental Health Symposium: Mental Health in Trying Times virtual conference, held on April 16th, 2021 (at which I also was a presenter on the topic of acedia). At exactly the 25:10 mark in Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times, you can see Vanity, busily knitting away… 😉 I’m tickled pink that I made a (brief) cameo in Drax’s documentary!

Screen capture of Vanity Fair (with her animated knitting needles!) sitting in the audience at the Virtual Ability Annual Mental Health Symposium (taken from Drax’s documentary)

P.P.S. Starting at the 1:17:42 mark of Drax’s documentary, in the discussion of social media/networks versus virtual worlds, Drax has an image of my popular list of metaverse platforms appearing on the screen of a virtual television set in Second Life! He even scrolls down the listing! My blog got a cameo!!!

My list of metaverse platforms gets a cameo in Drax’s documentary!

Thanks for the cameos, Drax! 😉

Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times: A New Feature-Length Documentary by Draxtor Despres, Premiering on YouTube and in Second Life on April 2nd, 2022

Second Life filmmaker Bernhard Drax (better known by his Second Life name, Draxtor Despres) will be premiering a new, feature-length documentary on April 2nd, 2022, titled Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times. I have written about Drax many times before on this blog, notably when he released his previous feature-length documentary, Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me. Drax is a truly indefatigable chronicler of Second Life, who often creates promotional short films (a.k.a. machinima) about various aspects of Second Life for Linden Lab. He is also an insatiable reader, who hosts the popular weekly Second Life Book Club.

According to the official website for the film:

Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times is a new feature length documentary by media maker Draxtor.

Since March 2020, Draxtor has been following researchers Tom Boellstorff, Evan Conaway, Chandra Middleton and Sandy Wenger (based in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine) around Animal Crossing and Second Life to find out how COVID-19 is reshaping online interaction.

In the 85 minute film, protagonists from all over the world speak openly about their anxieties and everyday challenges during this global crises and about what virtual worlds and social games mean to them in the context of a pandemic.

Mixed reality interviews and group discussions provide the basis for a sprawling narrative: a mosaic of impressions, shared by people from all walks of life, some well known figures from science, arts and culture, some just regular folks (like the research team itself), trying to make sense of a new age dominated by uncertainty and physical isolation.

The online premiere of Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times will be happening on YouTube and in the virtual world of Second Life, at 1:00 p.m. Pacific Time/SL Time on April 2nd, 2022.

For more information on the project, and to register for the premiere, please refer to the official website for the film. You can also search Twitter for the hashtag #VCinPandemicTimes for the latest tweets about the film and the people it profiles. You can also check out Drax’s voluminous output over on his YouTube channel (including a playlist of teaser clips from Virtual Cultures in Pandemic Times!).