For the most part, I don’t pay much attention to news surrounding developments in virtual reality. In my selectively Luddite mind, it’s all McDonald’s Happy Meal boxes—
—Or Zuckerberg making us piss ourselves, reminding us that if you die in the game, you die for real, except the game is life and I’d like a lifetime supply of blue pills, please.
Now there’s a much more real horror reinforcing my choices to bury my head in the VR sand, and its name is online harassment. At GDC in San Francisco this week, a developer named Patrick Harris gave a talk and demonstration on the terrifying potential for a new form of harassment in the virtual realm. Anyone who’s ever played a multi-player video game with strangers knows what sort of abuse players like to unload on each other, but anyone who’s ever played these games as a woman, with a woman’s voice and/or even a female avatar, knows that there’s a special level of torment reserved for us. On a personal level (as I’m just starting to dip my toe back into the gaming pool after a decade-long break), I devoted the majority of my 96-hour-long Thanksgiving weekend last year to finally delving into Fallout, but you (literally, professionally) could not pay me to blast my lady voice into strange dudes’ headsets for any game, ever. Because there’s a reason why the belief that women don’t play video games still persists, even today. We are made to feel acutely unwelcome.
And that’s what Harris demonstrated, and learned himself, during his demonstration. Harris is currently working on multiplayer VR experiences, and knows that those games will be the target of, or just generally involve a level of harassment, but he and his studio, Minority Media, haven’t been sure exactly what that will look like. From Polygon,
It turns out that, according to Harris, harassment is “way, way, way worse” in VR. “It is intense, it is visceral [and] it triggers your fight or flight response,” he warned, his tone becoming more grave.
The aggression in interactions with other players is similar to a normal game, but intensified, like, a millionfold.
“They can lean in and touch your chest and groin and it’s really scary,” Harris said. As part of his experiment to figure out the depths of VR harassment, the designer played his MMO prototype with an unsuspecting woman. Their gameplay session was shown to the audience with a short video that left the room in stunned, dismayed silence.
And it’s not just the impression others left on Harris. Whatever write-offs a person gives themself for behavior during a game, they suddenly have to face the reality of their actions live.
He described the shame he felt as he pushed the game’s immersive capabilities to their limits, making obscene gestures with a “phallic” object, invading his fellow player’s personal space and ultimately trying to make her feel as uncomfortable as possible — with great success. All of this was shown to the audience, too, as the video cut between the woman’s palpable discomfort and Harris’ increasingly disturbing victimizing tactics.
Afterward, Harris apologized profusely for the way he acted during the game session — he was so stricken by how real the experience felt, he said, that he immediately felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. Even worse, according to the woman he played against — and harassed in the name of research — it was “a damaging experience.”
This story is equal parts horrifying— because of course we would all like for internet and gaming harassment to not be at the level where if the harassers had to repeat their actions to real humans it would be “damaging”— and hopeful. Could this be the beginning of the end of gamers hiding behind anonymity and avatars? From the sound of it, Harris isn’t betting on that gaming utopian outcome happening on its own, and is creating some safeguards and repercussions.
Although he admitted that there was likely no one great method for protecting players from every possible instance of virtual harassment, he suggested several gameplay mechanics for creating precautions and punitive measures for damaging behaviors within VR. These include creating opt-out “personal boundary lines” which turn opponents invisible once crossed, improved report systems and saving replays of offending incidents.
Still, it’s uniquely heartening to see the people in charge of a technological development be so invested, and so willing to embrace the very real, very human flaws that risk ruining their products for everyone. Because as Harris himself says,
“We’re the ones with the power to change it. If we’re not going to change it, who the fuck is?”