In the Metaverse, Your Heart Can Be as True as the Boobs Are Fake
Editors' note: This article contains images that some readers might find offensive.
Greetings from VRChat, where everybody's boobs jiggle and nobody's fingers can cross.
Virtual breasts and hands may seem arbitrary, but in We Met in Virtual Reality, a new documentary on HBO and HBO Max, both get screentime. Avatars on screen abound with bouncing boobs, even the ones who aren't exotic-dancing sex demons. Two protagonists of the film are teachers of American Sign Language, communicating with each other and the viewer in hand signs even though VR can't track ASL's full range of finger movements.
Director Joe Hunting doesn't dwell on those issues. In his film, humanity is the feature; inequities are the bugs.
We Met in Virtual Reality is the first feature-length film shot entirely in VR. Captured in the social app VRChat, the movie is an empathetic portrait of human bonds forged on a platform where users build their own fantastical worlds and avatars, whether they're beautiful, zany, zen or horny.
Hunting homes in on the tenderness and positivity in these worlds. For one sex demon, the adrenaline of performing virtual exotic dance supplanted her past alcohol abuse. For the ASL instructors, their VR community supported them through suicidal depression and profound grief.
In an age when virtual worlds and metaverses are touted to be "the next chapter for the internet," watching We Met in Virtual Reality can feel fortifying. If our lives are moving more immersively online, it's nice to see tales of love and connection along the march to our metaverse future. But like all technologies, VR is a product of the society that builds it, and the inequities of actual reality can persist -- even intensify -- in virtual ones.
When the movie shows us sex demons in love, you're also observing a parade of avatars hypersexualizing the female body. And when the movie shows us grief over a brother's death, the signed farewell is heart wrenching. It's also interpreted with bespoke captions for the film, because VRChat doesn't caption spoken English for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, let alone caption ASL.
Hunting didn't set out for his 90-minute film to comment on sexism or ableism, the term for discrimination against people with disabilities. Sexism and ableism both can manifest in unconscious, systemic ways -- like tech companies dropping the ball on developing captions in VR.
"'Online' is not a magical place where we can get away" from inequities, said Jesse Fox, an associate professor at the Ohio State University who has researched VR and online spaces for more than a decade. "Too often, we just replicate the same garbage that happens offline. Or it's worse."
Instead of confronting those issues, We Met in Virtual Reality humanizes its protagonists as fleshed-out individuals, one way storytelling can foil stereotypes. Discussions about the film, beyond its focus of human connection, are "what a documentary should provoke," Hunting said.
In the film, the humanity in VR gets the close-up, not the problematic thicket entangling it. But with VRChat as the film's only lens, that thorniness keeps curling around edges.
At first, the film is meant to feel chaotic and disorienting, Hunting said, mirroring his own initial experiences in VRChat that were "new and quite scary." But by the end of the film, he hopes viewers "really understand the authentic truth of these amazing people."
"Quite scary," though, is a great description for what's happening to virtual boobs at the beginning of the movie. A group of unidentified avatars go for a joyride in a virtual car. The drive does really, really weird things to jiggle physics.
Yup, jiggle physics. VRChat runs on Unity, a gaming engine that powers a lot of VR. VRChat users skilled in Unity build and upload their own avatars. For those who aren't Unity pros, YouTube has a trove of jiggle physics tutorials, such as this one to "add boing-boing to your milkies." One Unity animation tool controlling jiggle physics is called -- cross my heart, no pun intended -- dynamic bone.
Dynamic bone, plus full-body tracking, are key to VRChat exotic dance. We Met in Virtual Reality spends a meaningful amount of time around exotic dancers as it follows the arc of IsYourBoi and DragonHeart, the sex demons in love. IsYourBoi, a woman living in the UK, and DragonHeart, a man in Miami, dance together at Club Zodiac and get VRChat married in the film. "Hopefully, one day," DragonHeart quietly tells IsYourBoi as he proposes to her, "I'll marry you in real life."
This proximity to exotic dance also means the film spends a lot of time displaying highly sexualized avatars. And just as in traditional film, TV, gaming, porn and basically all media, objectification in virtual reality exists in "a paradigm of inequity," according to Fox.
When somebody criticizes sexualization of female bodies, a common reply is to point out male bodies that are sexualized too. Sure, female avatars in We Met in VR are nearly naked with huge bouncing boobs and booties, but look at the dudes with broad bare chests, thick quads and ripped arms.
But, to Fox, that isn't hypersexualization. It's hypermasculinity. Hypermasculine male forms may read as sexually attractive, but they do it by conveying strength: big, ripped muscles. That's not a cue that they're subject to a sexual gaze, Fox said. That's a cue to power.
VRChat said its terms of service prohibit any content that a reasonable person would deem objectionable, profane, indecent or pornographic. It wouldn't comment on how it enforces the policies.
Hunting said it was a "very conscious decision" to include IsYourBoi, DragonHeart and their orbit of exotic dance in the film.
"We are facing so many stories about how VR is extremely objectifying and is causing an issue in terms of sexualization, which is also true. But it was really important to me to share the other side of that story," Hunting said. IsYourBoi, he added, "is such a great voice in how her dance and her ability to be sex positive … has brought her so much joy and positivity in life."
But the film arrives at a time of heightening tension around sex positivity. One side embraces the long-held ideal that consenting adults should be liberated to have sex and be sexy however they want. But a growing chorus has started arguing that decades of sex positivity have entrenched objectification deeper, spawning different forms of sexual oppression. This debate coincides with instances of, unsurprisingly, sexual harassment manifesting in VR.
And VRChat society, as depicted in We Met in Virtual Reality, is packed with sexualized female avatars even outside the context of exotic dance. Basically, wherever you see milkies, they're pretty sure to have boing-boing.
"If every man in that space is also hypersexualized, then that's a sex positive environment," Fox said. But when only women are hypersexualized, "or only women are choosing to do this, this is inequity."
That inequity raises questions about sexism and body image as culture moves more into metaverses: If Instagram Face goes full-body and full-out in virtual reality, how will we treat each other -- and see ourselves?
To hearing viewers of We Met in Virtual Reality, VR's inequities for people who are Deaf and hard of hearing may seem subtle.
We Met in Virtual Reality features the Helping Hands community, a grassroots VRChat sign-language organization set up to educate people about sign and better connect Deaf as well as hearing users. Two ASL instructors, Jenny0629 and Ray_Is_Deaf, are the film viewer's guides.
One of the film's most gutting moments is when Ray, whose brother died by suicide during the pandemic, visits a virtual sky lantern ceremony to say goodbye to him. For anyone who experienced loss during COVID-19 social distancing and travel restrictions, when so many grieving families were deprived of the relief of an in-person memorial or funeral, the scene crystalizes the depth of emotion that VR can help people process.
And for Jenny, the Helping Hands community was her salvation after a suicide attempt.
"I feel like communities that aren't made for mental health support can still be a really big mental health support," Jenny said in the film. "Just making friends here is sometimes what saves people's lives, or what gets them up out of bed in the morning."
People signing ASL must adapt it for VR, something We Met in Virtual Reality mentions in passing. Because of limitations in hand tracking and VR controllers, Helping Hands sign-language classes are taught without being able to sign the letters M, N, R and T, which are all handshapes that require fingers or thumbs to cross. That not only complicates finger spelling, an important element of sign language, but it also crimps the ability to make other signs as well. Signs for "ready," "realize" and "respect" in ASL all require the R handshape that VRChat users can't make.
Signing in VR is like talking with your mouth full, said Myles de Bastion, the founder and artistic director of CymaSpace, a nonprofit that helps make arts and cultural events inclusive for people who are Deaf and hard of hearing.
But beyond sign language in VR, Deaf people and advocates say broader accessibility has a long way to go broadly.
"Change isn't happening fast enough," said de Bastion, who is Deaf. For the main reasons, he called out the absence of people with disabilities in authoritative positions at big tech companies, as well as the lack of funding for grassroots organizations trying to affect change.
"People with disabilities are getting left behind in the digital 'goldrush' to build the metaverse," he said. Top creators who are making good money as "world builders," for example, are people who were able to pick up and learn the tools quickly. "They didn't face communication or physical access barriers that people with disabilities have."
Captions of voiced language, for example, are still rare in VR, according to Dylan Fox, who leads coordination and engagement for XR Access, an accessibility advocacy and research initiative. And even when captions for voiced conversation exist, how can a Deaf user respond? Few social VR programs have a text chat interface by default. If they do, it's typically a global chat, not something meant for smaller group conversations. (Dylan Fox and Jesse Fox are unrelated.)
One frustration about slow progress is that VR accessibility could improve the experience for everyone. Netflix was sued a decade ago by the National Association of the Deaf for not providing captions on most streaming titles; the company said this year that 40% of its global user base regularly uses subtitles.
In VR, "once you have captions, you're 90% of the way to translations," Dylan Fox said. "It's a good investment, because you're making your stuff better for everybody."
VRChat, like most apps in VR, doesn't have closed captions. Christopher Hornyak, a spokesman for VRChat, characterized captioning all users' voices live as an "interesting idea, but a pretty huge task." He noted that some independent developers have created speech-to-text plugins for VRChat. (For immersive content creators, the XR Accessibility GitHub Project is a resource for designing and developing accessible immersive content.)
Meta, formerly known as Facebook, dominates the consumer market for VR headsets. Its popular Quest 2 headsets have hand tracking, which according to de Bastion helps reproduce signed handshapes in VR better than hand controllers -- not perfectly, but better. However, VRChat doesn't support Quest 2 hand tracking yet. "Like many things we've yet to implement, most of the reasons why come down to the logistics of live development," Hornyak said. (Meta, despite developing the hand tracking of the Quest 2 itself, doesn't yet support hand tracking in the company's own social VR app, Horizon Worlds.)
Earlier this year, Meta also said it's exploring ways to make Quest provide live captions in VR. The company's next-gen Project Cambria device is being developed with additional sensors for avatars to mirror face movements; ASL relies not only on hand signs but also facial expressions to communicate.
Many people who sign in the Helping Hands VRChat community use Valve Index controllers because they allow for greater finger tracking. Still, Valve Index controllers can't reproduce crossed fingers. Valve didn't respond to a message seeking comment.
Jenny, in an interview, said she believes VR developers are always going to listen to the community they're building for. (Jenny preferred to be identified by her screenname for privacy purposes.) "If they have a community full of able-bodied, hearing people who aren't expressing these needs, there's no reason for them to push for that," she said. Getting developers to push more for accessibility will need greater awareness, she added.
We Met In Virtual Reality puts a spotlight on the Helping Hands sign-language community for the broader world to see. The film has a tagline: "The settings are virtual. The connections are real."
But in VR, the inequities are real too.