It’s hard to think of a concept that went from taboo to pretty much ubiquitous as fast as internet dating. These days, I genuinely can’t remember the last time I asked a couple how they met and they didn’t reply “Hinge”.
Recently, I took a trip into the metaverse to find out if it’s possible to have a fun night out and it was… distinctly average. Now I’d like to find out if the metaverse holds the key to the future of dating and, dare I say it, love in the 21st century.
A brief recap on what the metaverse actually is: Contrary to what some people might think, it’s not just one virtual world, but lots of smaller free-roaming worlds made by different developers with different concepts.
Luke Franks, host of the Welcome To The Metaverse podcast explained this to me by saying: “I like to think that, soon, it will be kind of like different countries, you know, you'll go to different virtual worlds for different experiences, and some will be like, fully gamified and some might be educational.”
Although you can access a lot of these worlds on a laptop or desktop PC, the recent advancements in virtual reality technology have turned the heads of various big tech firms. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft all have investments in some form or another in the metaverse, so it’s not really a case of if it will take off, but more like when.
Still, we’re very much in our Nokia 3210 era just now. Think: big, clunky devices that are exciting but relatively primitive. But if there was one thing we liked to do on our old mobiles, it was express our undying love to our crush at the time over text, only to retract the comment just moments later under the guise of “sorry, that was my mate lol”.
In December, Tinder CEO Renate Nyborg told Reuters that the company has "been talking about a Tinderverse internally, which is more about blurring the boundaries between offline and online”. If one of the biggest magnates in the current dating landscape is interested in exploring the metaverse, safe to say it’s very much going to be a thing.
Colour me intrigued. Before I actually seek romance in the metaverse, however, I should disclose that I am a newly married man. But after speaking with my wife, we’re good to go. Her reply, I shit you not, was “I’m ordering a pizza”, which either means that she doesn’t care or she thinks it will go so spectacularly bad that she wants to delight in her favourite food whilst watching the chaos.
To start off, I meet Chris Crew, CEO of the world’s first ever VR dating app, Planet Theta. He books me into their Saturday night beta test. As the app is essentially being tested for bugs at the moment, any actual dating for me in Planet Theta is off the cards, but Crew tells me over Zoom that there will be four different types of places you will be able to visit in Planet Theta: the micro-date, the coffee date, social areas (like a nightclub) and the dating areas (think: virtual apartments or “enchanted walks”).
Two people on a coffee date in Planet Theta. Photo: courtesy of author
Micro-dating is their equivalent of swiping right or left, where the platform’s AI selects three different people based on your preferences – simple stuff like age, gender and sexual orientation – and matches you with three different people. Each date lasts one minute and are structured with predetermined icebreaker questions.
“We think that in that minute, you will be able to decide whether or not you'd like to spend a little more time with that person,” Crew says. From there, you can invite them for coffee – “which is a five minute date where you can get to know someone a bit more”. (Much to my disappointment, the coffee is only virtual and an Inspector Gadget-style compartment doesn’t open in your headset to pour hot brown liquid down your throat.)
From there, you can date them further within the app or progress to a real-life date – but with Planet Theta still in beta, I’m on the hunt for what you can actually do to find love in the metaverse now.
I decide to speak to London dating expert Hayley Quinn, who gives me her best tips for romance in the hope that some of them might be able to translate into the digital world. I’ve been with my current partner for around five years now, so I’m a bit rusty on the dating front.
“Avoid asking questions that you don’t genuinely care about: do you really need to know how long someone’s worked at their job?” Quinn says, “Try asking big questions like, ‘what’s one thing you’d love to learn?’ Or ‘what’s on your bucket list?’
Time to put it to the test. And as the only bespoke dating app currently in existence hasn’t launched yet, I have no choice but to look for love in VRChat, an open-world desktop app that launched in 2014 and has since made the jump into the metaverse. And yes, I am fully taking advantage of the fact that I do not have to get ready for the dating world by staying in my PJs, dressing gown and slippers.
Here we go, into the metaverse.
The Meta Quest 2 headset is sleek and nicely designed, but it’s really quite heavy – it’s roughly the weight of a half-kilo bag of flour. After a while, I definitely feel like my neck muscles are going to cramp, which is not exactly the sexiest of feelings to have whilst you’re trying to navigate love. I put pain to the back of my mind and remember the huge size of the first mobile phones. Did the first businessmen to get a mobile phone complain? No, they awkwardly unbuckled their phone from its holster and powered on!
After randomly picking an avatar that looks kind of like a sock man in a suit and passing a very simple tutorial, I am given a choice of five portals: “Relaxing Vibes”, “Play a Game”, “Home”, “Find Avatars” and “Time to Party”. I decide to go for “Relaxing Vibes” in the hope that I might find a quiet corner to potentially woo someone.
A short loading screen later, I find myself in a high-rise apartment overlooking a serene city skyline. I wander around and find a seedy room in the back where I can see, what I can only describe as “a frog-person giving fellatio to a toadstool mushroom”, followed by a man with a bin on his head getting a tattoo from a pixie. Sensing a very unique vibe and feeling very Louis Theroux at a swingers party, I decide it’s time to leave.
A toadstool and a frog person hooking up in VRChat.
Feeling deflated that I didn’t get to try out any of my new dating techniques, and worried that this is a non-starter without being on a specific dating app, I return to my dating guru, Hayley Quinn. She tells me that a good way to approach people is to “begin by acknowledging what you’re doing, i.e. ‘excuse me, I know I’m gatecrashing but…’ as it will do a lot to show your social intelligence. Be sensitive to your environment and make sure the other person is enthusiastically participating in the conversation before continuing.”
I’m not exactly sure this would have worked on the toadstool or the binhead guy. But Quinn does give some advice on how to deal with rejection: “If the other person doesn’t reciprocate, wish them a great day and get out of there! You’re only looking to connect with people who are as socially open as you.”
A binhead man getting a tattoo from a pixie in VRChat.
Of course, not everyone behaves well when faced with rejection. One of the main criticisms of the metaverse is how platforms safeguard women, people of different ethnicities and LGBTQ people. Groping, sexual assault and gang rape have all been reported in the metaverse.
“First, I will say, compared to the abuse that people face in person, the abuse that people can face in VR is much less,” Planet Theta CEO Crew explains over Zoom. “It's not that it's not there – it's real. People definitely can be hurt emotionally, and feel like they've been excluded. You can certainly feel like you've been violated in VR, but you aren't going to truly be kidnapped. Anytime you're feeling truly unsafe, you can always just turn this sucker off,” he says, pointing to the Meta headset in Planet Theta’s HQ.
But, for me at least, your avatar does feel like an extension of your body. I have hugged and touched the virtual face of my friend, Victor – the only other person I know in the real world with a Meta Quest 2 – and although no actual nerves are being pressed, you still feel the same feelings you would if you let people into your personal space.
In Planet Theta, Crew says, they’re trying to address these problems head-on by giving users the option to mute people and have them disappear from their sight (very Black Mirror). If multiple users flag someone in a short period of time, they get booted out.
“Strangers or people who you have not matched with can't get into your bubble, which basically means that they can't reach out and touch you in VR,” Crew adds. “They can get kind of close to you, but it's about the equivalent of about maybe two or three feet from you.”
But what if I actually do want to get close to people (with their enthusiastic consent, obviously)?
My next venture is into an app called AltSpaceVR, Microsoft’s answer to the metaverse, which according to their website, “is the leading platform for live, virtual events, empowering artists, brands, and businesses to easily design meaningful experiences that foster community and connection”. A meaningful experience that fosters connection, you say? Sounds like the perfect place to find love!
I dress my avatar confidently with purple hair, dungarees and a smart blue top and head into a “campfire” space in AltspaceVR. Immediately, I go up to a couple who tell me that they have recently divorced and have met up here to have a conversation. I’m so interested to learn more but I’m also very aware that I might be intruding and remember what Quinn said about people not reciprocating. Another dead end!
Feeling as though I might never find love in the metaverse, and as I approach the portal to return to my home screen, a beautiful lady with a moustache, green fedora and the same dungarees as me catches my eye!
A meet-cute in AltspaceVR.
I’m shocked as she approaches me!
We compliment each other on our matching dungarees and hit it off immediately, agreeing to play some basketball in a quiet part of the space. I make a hoop on the first shot and she accidentally throws the ball at me. We end up in a fit of giggles.
After this short but endearing moment, we say our farewells and part ways, but it’s safe to say, she will always have a place in my heart. Also, and somewhat poetically, I didn’t even get her name!
Conscious that if I stay in the incredibly wholesome AltspaceVR, I’ll become the meta-version of the guy who only uses Facebook to DM random people with the word “boobs”, I decide to return to the way seedier VRChat.
With my confidence boosted from my fleeting meet-cute with moustache lady, I’m feeling ready to step this up a notch. Hey! If that toadstool mushroom guy can get some, then so can I!
My wallaby avatar.
I re-open the app and put on my Meta Quest 2 headset. This time, I’m not holding back. I choose a wallaby avatar that just screams young, single and ready to mingle.
I go straight into the “Time To Party” portal and am transported to another, slightly less seedy apartment than before. And then I see it: a staircase with the word “love” italicised in a giant pink heart. This is what I’ve been searching for!
I follow the steps down and find myself at another Portal called “Euro Club”. I stand before a prism shaped building, and before I enter, I must agree that I am over 18, have an “optimised” avatar (my wallaby passes the test), that I will follow the rules (I’m not sure of the rules, but whatever) and I won’t take photos during the dances.
The entrance of Euro Club in VRChat.
Here we go! I tentatively walk through a door and enter a dimly lit room filled with leather sofas and a podium stacked with avatars of all shapes and sizes dancing to what I can only describe as “sex music”. Green people, tiny elves and giant black mice all move their bodies to the beat. It’s difficult to imagine that these are all real people wearing headsets in their living rooms at three o’clock in the afternoon.
“Excuse me, I know I’m gatecrashing, but what’s one thing you’d love to learn to do?” I say, leaning into a very sexy man in a knight outfit and channeling my dating expert, Hayley Quinn.
Before I even get my answer, he leans in and kisses me on the mouth. “That,” he says confidently. My heart swoons.
The kiss is clunky and messy but his giant metal knight hands caress my face as he pulls away, there is no doubt that he did what he meant to do and didn’t just crash into my avatar by accident, which also regularly happens. I’m awash with feelings. Sure, no actual contact was made in the real world, but in the metaverse, this was real enough. A true success!
I take off the Meta Quest 2, reminded of a time all those years ago when we were so skeptical of online dating and how pervasive it is now. I look over at my wife, who is visibly laughing at the motions I’ve just been acting out with my headset and controllers.
It pains me to think of who might be sitting there instead, eating pizza and laughing at me, if we hadn’t both given that dating app a go all those years ago. Who’s to say “we met over a game of digital basketball” might be the new Hinge in just a few years time? Although I think it’s safe to say that nothing wholesome will be happening in the Euro Club any time soon.