Over the last few months, several women have reported facing or witnessing sexual harassment online in VR. Most recently, author Jordan Belamire explained on Medium last week that the avatar of someone she didn't know virtually groped her in the online mulitplayer game QuiVR. Yesterday, QuiVR's developers responded by modding their game to prevent non-consensual touching. In a uniquely proactive move, QuiVR's developers have added a "personal bubble" option that makes other players' hands disappear when they enter your space. But prevention isn't where the new so-called "superpower" ends — the potentially aggressive strangers will now disappear entirely from players' view with the click of two triggers. At a time when sexual harassment in VR is an increasingly hot topic, this mechanics-based approach to prevention may keep players from feeling violated.
Belamire was visiting her brother when he loaded up QuiVR, an "archery Castle Defence game" for the HTC Vive that's currently in pre-release alpha. While playing, Belamire had "never experienced virtual reality that felt so real," she recounted in her Medium piece. That's why she felt violated when a stranger's avatar allegedly touched her avatar's chest non-consensually in QuiVR's multiplayer mode. Belamire encountered BigBro442, a floating helmet, a bow and a free-floating hand. Avatars look the same in QuiVR, but Belamire's voice gave her away as a woman. Here's what happened next in her words:
Suddenly, BigBro442's disembodied helmet faced me dead-on. His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest.
"Stop!" I cried... This goaded him on, and even when I turned away from him, he chased me around, making grabbing and pinching motions near my chest. Emboldened, he even shoved his hand toward my virtual crotch and began rubbing.
Belamire said that the alleged virtual groping, while not real, is still "scary as hell". BigBro442, she said, followed her as she ran away. When she couldn't take it any more, she took the headset off. The whole thing reportedly lasted three minutes.
"Women are allowed, sure, but the BigBro442s of the world will make sure you never want to come back," Belamire concluded.
QuiVR's developers Jonathan Shenker and Aaron Stanton didn't realise that Belamire's essay was about their game at first. Their hearts sank when they read that their game was the scene of the alleged groping. In an Upload VR post yesterday, Shenker and Stanton took full responsibility for what happened.
"This had happened in our game; this had been on our watch," they write. "We should have prevented this in the first place."
Shenker and Stanton purposefully did not give QuiVR's avatars gender identifiers. They had already programmed something they call a "personal bubble" into the game, which makes "players' hands disappear if they come close to your face." What they didn't think of was extending that personal bubble to the rest of the body, and what that could mean for preventing virtual harassment. So, they made it cover avatars' chests and genitals. But, they said, preventing non-consensual touching in VR isn't enough:
"When harassment does happen — and I see no way to prevent it entirely so long as multiplayer experiences exists — we need to also offer the tools to re-empower the player as it happens," they write. "For example, what if a player had tools on hand to change the outcome of the encounter before it ended in a negative way... Would the author's experience have been any different if she could have reached out with a finger, and with a little flick, sent that player flying off the screen like an ant?"
Shenker and Staton made an adjustment that converted their so-called "personal bubble" into a "superpower" that players can switch on and off. They're calling it a "power gesture". When players put their hands together, pull both Vive triggers and pull their hands apart, they can now create a force field that "dissolv[es] any nearby player from view, at least from your perspective". You can't see them and they can't see you.
It's a pro-active approach to preventing sexual harassment in VR, which has increasingly become a hot topic among women trying out the new virtual worlds this technology has to offer. Feeling violated in an escapist space is jarring, since these worlds are intended for enjoyment and fun. When some players feel the harsher aspects of real life bleeding through, it can be damaging. Belamire said she felt unsettled for a week after the incident.
Developers who are working to meet the challenge of sexual harassment in online VR are, essentially, erasing the appearance of it. Shenker and Staton put it frankly when they said that it will exist so long as multiplayer does. That's why it's on other players to maintain the bare minimum of decent behaviour in VR.