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Getting harassed in virtual reality is going to suck on directorygames

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Harassment in virtual reality will be more personal, more intense, and more traumatic than in any other online space – and developers need to be ready. That is according to Patrick Harris, lead game designer at Canadian developer Minority Media (Papo & Yo).

As VR makers flocked to the Game Developers Conference on a cloud of optimism and venture capital, Harris described a disastrous, unethical experiment he performed to probe the limits of harassment in virtual worlds.

Minority Media is making a co-op VR game called Time Machine, and Harris wanted to understand how uncomfortable it was possible to make someone in VR. So he brought in an unsuspecting volunteer and subjected her to in-game harassment.

“I want to be clear that this was really, really, REALLY stupid,” Harris told the audience. “You should NEVER bring someone into a situation like this, ever.” He called it “the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

The results convinced him that VR had the power to make online harassment much worse — so much worse that anyone making VR games needs to put “time and money” into stopping it.

Violating personal space

The reason harassment is so much more powerful in VR, said Harris, is “presence” — a common buzzword for the sense of really-being-present-in-a-space which the medium inspires in many players.

“That’s goddamn terrifying,” said Harris. “You can sense the violation of personal space. You can hear the other person’s voice coming from their mouth. They can lean in, gesture at you, deliver a crushing insult in a way that’s just not possible in current games. This is an incredibly powerful and upsetting experience. It is undoubtedly the type of experience that can not just make a person stop playing your game, but stop them from playing anything in VR again.”

Worse, invisible worlds or strong hitboxes don’t work in VR: there is nothing to stop ap layer putting their real hand through a virtual coffee table. “Except here, they’re putting their hand on your face, or your chest, or your groin,” said Harris.

How to stop it

All this means that VR developers have a particular obligation to limit harassment or give their players the tools to avoid it. One solution would be to avoid situations which trap players together (such as pre-game lobbies).

 Another might be to create “personal space barriers” which let players define a radius around themselves within which other players who aren’t on their friends list simply fade out.

Getting harassed in virtual reality is going to suck on directorygames
Harris’s proposed “personal bubble” model.

“Having an invisible victim makes it much harder to target anything, including spacialised voice communication,” said Harris. “How can you talk into someone’s ear if you can’t see them?”

But the single biggest thing developers can do, he said, is to seriously reform their reporting systems.

Getting harassed in virtual reality is going to suck on directorygames
A typical Dota 2 response message.

Harris shared a screenshot of a farcically vague message from Dota 2, which reassures the reporting player that “action” has been taken against “one or more players.”

“Can you imagine if crimes were handled like this?” he asked the audience. “Sure, yeah, we caught one or more of the criminals you reported and we took action against them. Not gonna tell you who or what, though. That might hurt their feelings. That’s madness — yet that’s the standard right now. How does this help someone who has been harassed in your game feel like they’re safe to return? How do you recommend the game to a friend when you know they can easily encounter the very same person that harassed and disturbed you?”

Automated enforcement is unlikely to be viable because of how much information it would take to track and log everyone’s head and body position throughout the game.

But although individual instances of harassment will be more personal and damaging, Harris said he thought the overall number of incidents would be lower, because harassing someone in VR feels more personal, and therefore more intuitively wrong, than doing it with text.

(Top image: Minority Media’s Spirits of Spring, available for iOS.)

John Brindle is a critic and journalist who lives in south London, working as a mild-mannered editor for a metropolitan newspaper. He tweets @john_brindle.

March 19, 2016 |

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