Too real: Fighting sexual harassment, abuse and violence in virtual worlds

What constitutes a VR crime and how can we stop it?
Too real? Crime & ethics in VR
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The distance between our virtual and real spaces is growing shorter. With each successive leap in the 'realness' of VR, we see an increase in the moral, ethical and legal questions to be asked, such as; what does it mean when a person commits an act within a virtual environment that would bring about serious consequences in the real world?

When virtual reality first piqued public interest (and got its name) in the late 80s, the public's expectations far outstripped the technology's ability to deliver. Fast-forward three decades and the combined power of the PlayStation VR with mobile headsets like the Gear VR has brought an affordable, quality virtual reality experience to millions for the very first time.

The promise is finally starting to live up to its name, offering a level of sensory immersion that's sophisticated enough to transport the user's mind to impossible environments and fool it into having 'real' experiences.

How real do our brains think VR really is?

Debate has been raging for decades over how 'real' our brains and bodies think experiences within virtual worlds are, which is often referred to as 'virtual embodiment' once you start delving into the studies.

As technology advances, these discussions become even more important. Because no longer are we simply referring to audio and visual cues delivered through a headset. Instead, the latest VR controllers, vests and accessories can deliver haptic stimulus, meaning all kinds of touch stimuli, like pressure, force, vibration and temperature are being manipulated too. And that's just the beginning.

Each new innovation in the technology is making it feel more real than ever to be in a virtual world. This has huge significance when it comes to dissecting the implications of violence when we're inhabiting these worlds.

Although countless studies have been carried out that explore virtual embodiment, many continue to cite the rubber hand illusion, which essentially proved that, with the right stimuli, people took full ownership of a rubber hand as their own.

VR and ethics: Fighting sexual harassment, abuse and violence in virtual worlds

A 2010 study revisited the rubber hand illusion with a much more life-like virtual arm that could be used for VR therapy. The researchers found that synchrony between visual information, touch and movement could indeed induce a fully believable illusion that people in the study actually had full ownership of a virtual arm. Similar studies have been carried out into the efficacy of using VR 'bodies' for physical therapy and rehabilitation, further proving again and again that our virtual bodies can feel just as real as our actual bodies.

Avatars are used to help people deal with bullying or PTSD

Interestingly, plenty of research points to using limbs and bodies that look just like ours in order to achieve the most believable results, which makes sense. But a 2010 study found that people could feel a certain degree of virtual embodiment through building up visual, tactile, vestibular (inner ear) and proprioceptive (position/movement) signals even when limbs and bodies didn't look like their own.

But it's important to remember that virtual embodiment doesn't just have huge implications for physical presence, but mental and emotional presence too.

A 2016 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that developing virtual world avatars that look exactly like us can elicit different methods of identification within the brain. This helps people to feel a sense of immersion that then enables these life-like avatars to be used in a range of settings to help people deal with mental health challenges and real-world trauma. VR companies like ProReal are leading the way with virtual environments containing avatars that are used to play out all kinds of scenarios to help people deal with a range of challenges, from bullying to PTSD and rehabilitation.

That's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the research, and real world applications, into virtual embodiment and just how real virtual spaces can feel when it comes to both physical and psychological presence.

When virtual reality starts to mirror reality

As our fledgling virtual worlds continue to offer ever deeper approximations of real life, with tragic inevitability, real life problems are starting to find their way in. Already, women have experienced what can only be described as sexual assault within virtual environments, causing real-world emotional distress.

Catherine Allen, a digital producer and director specialising in VR and AR for the BBC and others, told us, "Digital worlds used to be taken less seriously because things that happen in them appeared to have less efficacy than things that happened in the physical world. This legacy of the trivialisation of digital spaces is why behaviour within them doesn't get taken as seriously - including sexual harassment."

A clear example of how seriously the victims of virtual sexual assault are taken can be seen in the response to Jordan Belamire's experience of being 'virtually groped' in VR. Jordan has described the online backlash that the sharing of her experience prompted as being worse than the assault itself.

VR and ethics: Fighting sexual harassment, abuse and violence in virtual worlds

Sexual assault is appalling, illegal, and now occurring within shared virtual environments. But what about murder? We will see more and more multiplayer VR games and it's a question worth asking - shooting down your friend's enemy spaceship will probably feel quite different to stabbing them at close range with a virtual knife.

The visceral immediacy of VR means that explicitly violent video games that were once several steps removed by virtue of being played on a flat screen a few feet away can now be experienced from a first-person POV.

The big question: is murder still a harmless, recreational act when, sensorially, it feels real?

Angela Buckingham, a writer who for 20 years worked in the film and television industry, argues that murder in VR should be illegal. Not age-monitored, or banned, but illegal. That we, as humans, are beings that experience reality through a range of sensory inputs and even possess the ability to expand our own realities, citing the rubber hand illusion of how malleable our ability to self identify is.

Although many would argue there's so much more to virtual reality than the thrills of violence, it's clear from the launch campaigns for PSVR over the past year that there's a huge public demand for horror and extremely violent games. But let's be clear: none of this behavior is new and neither are the debates that ensue. For starters, women and minorities have been harassed online ever since the dawn of the internet.

What's more, violent video games are a mainstay of the medium. And therefore, their effect (or lack of effect) on our behaviour has been dissected in great detail with many believing in-game violence has - so far - often been nothing more than recreational.

Most studies tend to suggest only those with underlying psychological disorders are affected, some violent video games can even decrease occurrences of violence and the notion that violence in gaming leads to violence in the real world is just a fallacy fabricated by mainstream media. But crucially, what is new is the virtual environment, the huge physical and psychological implications of virtual embodiment and our heightened emotional vulnerability when we enter into these spaces.

How will we address these problems in the future?

It's clear that as VR technology continues to advance, the lines between our virtual and real bodies will blur. So what does this mean for ensuring we don't experience sexual harassment and abuse when we enter virtual worlds?

Speaking to Catherine Allen about issues around sexual harassment in VR spaces, she told us, "We need to see the digital world as simply an extension of the physical one, applying the same ethical standards. Generations of feminists have worked long and hard in the pursuit of creating a fairer and more equal society, in the physical world. Let's not go backwards. What we have fought for in the physical world should carry over seamlessly into digital space. There is no excuse."

A bouncer throws someone out of a nightclub for sexual harassment - the creators of virtual spaces should do the same thing

But given this kind of harassment is so hard to prevent in the real world, we asked what she feels needs to be put in place in virtual worlds to try and eradicate--or at least minimise--cases of abuse.

"Sexual harassment in virtual spaces should simply not be acceptable," she told us. "A bouncer will throw someone out of a nightclub for sexually harassing someone. In my opinion, the creators of virtual spaces should do the same thing, operating a zero tolerance policy. Laws should be updated accordingly, with the same rules around consent applying." A big question here is where should the onus lie? In better educating people? With the users? Or with those who create virtual spaces?

Theo Priestley, VR startup mentor with HTC, believes it's down to software developers and platforms. He told me, "You can't make hardware manufacturers responsible for tackling abuse. They can certainly band together to support efforts to halt it, but they're not responsible for enabling it. It's the software and platforms that are supporting VR where the triggers for reporting abuse should reside.

"Companies like Facebook will have to take the lead here since they're a big supporter of the social aspects of virtual reality, as an example," he continued. "Even in gaming, the big players must support ways to report abuse, and also consider just how players can interpret the games in ways that could fuel VR-related abuse."

VR and ethics: Fighting sexual harassment, abuse and violence in virtual worlds

At a recent Oculus discussion about the practical implications ofcreating a safe environment in VR, Darshan Shankar fromBig Screen VR explained that a number of steps are being put into place to ensure people are safe in his virtual community: "We're building tools that allow people to report users, building banning tools that allow us to ban users that are not behaving well on the platform and providing self-governing tools." Similarly Tony Sheng, a product manager at the social VR app AltspaceVR, explained the platform's focus on immediacy and addressing issues as soon as they happen. He said that since introducing new ways to block users who abuse others, better reporting tools and more community accountability, there has been a 90% reduction in the frequency of people being blocked by others.

I spoke with Nick Walusayi, president and CEO of DatavizVR who explained that educating people about what is and isn't appropriate is a good step too, as well as empowering the community to self-moderate. He told me, "Compensating good behaviour with bonus privileges or in game prizes can help. Also, allowing exemplary users to become VR moderators, that way users will be incentivised to stop abuse when they see it happening."

Don't allow abuse in the first place

Although these are certainly steps in the right direction, for experiences that will feel increasingly more and more real as tech advances, can we really afford to only be looking at banning people after they abuse someone else? The answer here could well be creating experiences that can't allow abuse in the first place. How that will actually work in practice remains to be seen, but Allen agrees that rather than cure the problem we need to be looking to prevention.

"The great thing about virtual reality worlds is that because they are comprised of CG graphics, we have total control over them," she explained. "We can create the world we want - a world that can be aspirational. If anything, we should be creating utopias instead of dystopias. Is a world where sexual harassment is 'okay' a place we should aspire to? No, of course not."

Since the dawn of the web, harassment and online abuse has been rife. Although some of the biggest social media platforms have taken steps in recent years to ensure that abuse is stamped out, it often feels like too little too late.

The VR community needs to think very carefully about how to deal with abuse and even begin to create experiences that make it impossible to abuse one another. Many would argue here that this would stop people from taking part in violent games or exploring the possibilities opened up by VR in the sex industry.

Of course it's brilliant that VR is enabling us to have better real-life gaming experiences (whether they're violent or not). The same can be said for the possibility of VR opening up opportunities to explore one's own sexuality in a myriad of ways. But just like real life, it must always be consensual and when it crosses that line we need to have appropriate means to deal with it.

But it's not just about how to best prevent this abuse from happening, but what to do when someone is abused and assaulted in a virtual world. Would real life repercussions seem far too extreme, or exactly what's necessary to stamp out further problems?

No one has the answers to these questions yet and no legal precedents have been set. But as it increasingly becomes an extension of the real world, it's vital we discuss what is and isn't acceptable in a virtual world too.