Last week, Jordon Belamire took to Medium.com to write about her first experience with a phenomenon that none of us were even registering: sexual harassment in virtual reality.
The powerfully eloquent piece generated a great deal of debate in the gaming and technological communities—giants of the tech industry weighed in on the rather disturbing narrative and a variety of opinions on what took place where formed.
But rather than their shock stemming from what took place and the mere idea of the new forms of sexual harassment these VR technologies could introduce, a number of people derived a sense of shock from having not considered the potential for harassment earlier.
Sexual Harassment Happens In VR, And It's Very Real
To summarize a piece that all of you should read in full for the sake of this article, Belamire was engaging with a game called QuiVr on the HTC Vive, which just so happens to support multiplayer interactions. Players are semi-rooted to a small area with in-game hands and bodies and are expected to take down waves of zombies in front of them with bows and arrows. She was having a lot of fun with her husband and brother-in-law! However, once Belamire took the game online, things changed.
She was paired with a player by the name of BigBro442 (the name is telling), who was expected to help her take down these waves of undead. While his virtual body was in no way dissimilar from her own, he could hear her voice and recognized that she was a woman. While in between a wave, BigBro442 approached Belamire and... I'll let her describe it:
[...] 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.
There I was, being virtually groped in a snowy fortress with my brother-in-law and husband watching.
For anyone who has tried virtual reality before, we understand the unparalleled sense of immersion these headsets introduce. While Belamire consistently berated the man, asking him to stop and leave her alone, he continued to do so. That must be truly disturbing.
The virtual groping feels just as real [as any other action]. Of course, you're not physically being touched, just like you're not actually one hundred feet off the ground, but it's still scary as hell.
I don't doubt it. If the space station of Astroneer can make me feel weightless and the flying between narrow spaces in Eagle Flight claustrophobic, I don't doubt for a second that another avatar approaching you and attempting to grab you feels uncomfortable and threatening.
But of course, an issue like this always brings out the worst kind of people from their holes.
These kind of responses are emblematic of narcissistic, disrespectful and ugly individuals. Who are they to say Belamire's experience was false? Let's look at these three cretins one by one.
- Why should anyone be forced to turn off a video game that they were enjoying because someone else ruined the experience? Not only ruining it in this case, but going far beyond anything that could happen in GTA: Online or other multiplayer experiences where players are griefed. Turning off the game is not an option, nor is simply removing the device. It ignores the problem. We shouldn't be forced to do something we don't want to by another player in such a disgraceful fashion.
- According to this individual, video proof must be provided with every claim of sexual assault in order for anyone (see: Emesis) to believe it actually occurred—or any kind of heinous act, for that matter! With a lack of a video that they themselves can watch, it did not happen. I'm also seeing the words "lesbian" and "feminist" being thrown around like triggers that can justify this form of rage. F*** you.
- This person seems to have not played the game. Simple as that. If they have played QuiVr, then they have simply presumed that this is not a feature. It is. Do you simply want to imagine that this didn't happen? The developers have referenced it themselves, and their response was far more admirable than anything the three of you are likely to have spouted online.
'Super Powers' On The Way For QuiVr
Aaron Stanton and Jonathan Schenker, the developers of QuiVr, wrote a piece in response to Belamire's account. They were understandably upset by what transpired.
In their response, the clearly talented developers acknowledged their role in facilitating an environment where something like this could happen. And they found themselves asking an important question, "How could we have overlooked something so obvious?" Which I feel is rather relatable. Of course people were going to abuse virtual reality.
The article was extremely well written and left me deeply saddened, but also grateful that the author had the courage to tell the story. We need this sort of examination. At the same time, Jonathan and I both felt responsible for what had happened.
Therefore, they wanted to ensure that nothing like this was possible in their game. The developers had already taken the precaution to ensure other players' hands couldn't block anyone's vision; a small bubble exists around each avatar's face preventing anyone from interfering with your sight. But they hadn't considered this for the rest of the body.
In her article, the author commented that the feeling of the original encounter remained with her for days afterwards – I can absolutely understand this. Even for me as a passive participant reading the article, I felt that anger and vulnerability carry with me.
The developers desired to put power back in the hands of players who felt vulnerable in these situations. Thus, they've decided to add what they call a 'Personal Bubble' to the game, which can be activated like a 'superpower'. Here's how they explained it:
[A]ctivating your Personal Bubble is more like engaging your own superpower. You can still turn it on via the settings, but you can also activate it by what we’re calling a “power gesture” – putting your hands together, pulling both triggers, and pulling them apart as if you are creating a force field.
No matter how you activate it, the effect is instantaneous and obvious – a ripple of force expands from you, dissolving any nearby player from view, at least from your perspective, and giving you a safety zone of personal space. It’s an instant creation of control.
Any player that teleports next to you will fade away as they approach – and in reverse, you’ll fade from their perspective as they approach, as well. Other player’s voice audio is automatically muted, and you’re given the option to select who you want to hear again. You have the power to turn this on and off – essentially giving you dramatic and instant control of your own space again.
An admirable effort and genuinely uplifting response from the developers. Their actions should hopefully encourage other game designers to include similar forms of protection and empowerment in their video games so that virtual reality can become a zone where women don't have to feel continuously subjected to online abuse. That'd be something wouldn't it?