Improving Trump Behavior in Virtual Reality
Women are being accosted in the Virtual Reality realm?
On October 21, 2016 a woman detailed her experience inside the virtual world of Quivr using a HTC Vive virtual reality system– where she claims she was chased, and groped after repeated attempts to get the user to stop. The feeling of being attacked lasted for days after the incident.
Read about her entire experience here… courtesy of mic.com
While visiting my brother-in-law last weekend, we decided to check out his HTC Vive, a virtual reality system. My husband and I stood in his home in Redwood City, on an idyllic 80-degree day, the three of us taking turns on the Vive.
It was my turn next. I glanced one last time around the room before strapping on the massive headset, and into a world more beautiful than I could have imagined.
Turning around 360 degrees, I reveled in the snowy medieval fortress of a game called QuiVr, where you play an archer shooting down the walking dead.
After some instruction, I found my groove with the gameplay. My bow and arrow strung taut, I let an arrow fly and it punctured a demon right through the skull. Nailed it.
Never had I experienced virtual reality that felt so real. I was smitten. I never wanted to leave this world.
To complete the reality of my experience, my brother-in-law directed me to the top of the highest tower in the game.
“Now walk off the ledge,” he suggested.
Might as well try. I inched closer and closer to the edge, looking out onto a very convincing hundred-foot drop. My fear of heights started kicking in, strong. Closing my eyes, I took a single step off the ledge and… nothing happened. I didn’t fall, and I was walking on air. I was a god. Virtual reality had won me over — lock, stock and barrel.
Or so I thought.
A few minutes later I started a new QuiVr game, and hit multiplayer mode. In multiplayer mode, other real-time players appear beside you. Every player looks nearly identical with a floating helmet, a persistent bow in one hand, and another free-floating hand. Keep that free-floating hand in the back of your mind.
So, there I was shooting down zombies alongside another real-time player named BigBro442. The other players could hear me when I spoke, my voice the only indication of my femaleness. Otherwise, my avatar looked identical to them.
In between a wave of zombies and demons to shoot down, I was hanging out next to BigBro442, waiting for our next attack. Suddenly, BigBro442’s disembodied helmet faced me dead-on. His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest.
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. I must have laughed from the embarrassment and the ridiculousness of the situation. Women, after all, are supposed to be cool, and take any form of sexual harassment with a laugh. But I still told him to stop.
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.
There I was, being virtually groped in a snowy fortress with my brother-in-law and husband watching.
As it progressed, my joking comments toward BigBro442 turned angrier, and were peppered with frustrated obscenities. At first, my brother-in-law and husband laughed along with me — all they could see was the flat computer screen version of the groping. Outside the total immersion of the QuiVr world, this must have looked pretty funny, and definitely not real.
Remember that little digression I told you about how the hundred-foot drop looked so convincing? Yeah. Guess what. The virtual groping feels just as real. 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.
My high from earlier plummeted. I went from the god who couldn’t fall off a ledge to a powerless woman being chased by an avatar named BigBro442.
There I was, being virtually groped in a snowy fortress with my brother-in-law and husband watching.
I wasn’t as experienced a player as BigBro442. Everywhere I ran, he appeared beside me, ready to grope as soon as the zombie wave was over. I’d had enough. With a final parting obscenity, I yanked the headset off my face and stood back in the sunny, familiar room of my brother-in-law’s home.
What had just happened? I hadn’t lasted 3 minutes in multiplayer without getting virtually groped.
What’s worse is that it felt real, violating. This sounds ludicrous to anyone who hasn’t stood on that virtual reality ledge and looked down, but if you have, you might start to understand. The public virtual chasing and groping happened a full week ago and I’m still thinking about it.
Now that the shock has mostly worn off, I’m faced instead with the residual questions about the unbridled misogyny that spawns from gaming anonymity. It’s easy to dismiss the most egregious offenses as the base actions of a few teenage boys, but I don’t think it’s as rare as a few bad apples.
How could it be, when my brother-in-law has played multiplayer mode a hundred times without incident, but my female voice elicited lewd behavior within minutes?
As VR becomes increasingly real, how do we decide what crosses the line from an annoyance to an actual assault? Eventually we’re going to need rules to tame the wild, wild west of VR multiplayer. Or is this going to be yet another space that women do not venture into?
Women are allowed, sure, but the BigBro442s of the world will make sure you never want to come back.
So the makers of Quivr learned about the post titled “My First Virtual Reality Groping” and went into action. They improved on the “personal bubble” feature that had already been in place that only addressed a users hand trying to obscure a players view. “Now … if you have the setting on, someone who, kind of, walks into your personal space, simply fades out of existence.” Jonathan Schenker
Click to read the entire post written by Aaron Stanton and Jonathan Schenker, the developers of QuiVr with thanks from UploadVR.com.
This had happened in our game; this had been on our watch.
The author was surprisingly complimentary towards the game itself, given the circumstances, and yet it’s difficult to explain my reaction. 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. This was not the intended purpose of our game, of course. The models deliberately have no gender identifiers, and we’ve thought long and hard about a concept we call, “cooperative independence” – the idea that players are side-by-side, but gameplay is not dependent on anyone else. Everyone can play together, yet no one can interfere with each other.
The first thing I felt was that we had let someone down. We should have prevented this in the first place. While QuiVr is still in pre-release alpha, we’d already programmed a setting into the game called your, “Personal Bubble,” so other player’s hands disappear if they come close to your face. This way, the rare bad-apple player can’t block someone else’s view and be annoying. The arrows that get shot at you stick in your helmet, which is good for a laugh, but they do no damage and quickly disappear so they don’t get in the way. We hadn’t, though, thought of extending that fading function to the rest of the body – we’d only thought of the possibility of some silly person trying to block your view with their hands and ruining the game.
How could we have overlooked something so obvious?
I called Jonathan, who is not only the original creator of QuiVr, but one of the people I respect the most in the industry to date. He’d already seen the article – his girlfriend had sent him the link – and he had spent the morning changing the game to extend the Personal Bubble; now, when the setting was turned on, other players faded out when they reached for you, no matter their target, chest included. It was a possible solution; no one should be able to treat another player like the author had been treated again.
But in talking, we quickly realized that it didn’t feel like the entire solution. It was functional, but only addressed the act that caused the damage, not the damage itself. To us – though we’re not at all experts on personal space – the strengths and weaknesses of VR are often the same. The reality of the experience, of being “present,” makes everything more powerful than on a flat, 2-dimensional screen. The medical community has been exploring the use of VR to help treat PTSD, phobias, and phantom limb syndrome. If VR has the power to have lasting positive impact because of that realism, the opposite has to be taken seriously as well.
So, we would like to float a possible way of thinking for the VR development community to consider as we grow. It consists of two parts. One, that we should strive to prevent harassment from happening in the first place, of course. But second, when harassment does happen – and I see no way to prevent it entirely so long as multiplayer experiences exist – we need to also offer the tools to re-empower the player as it happens.
I don’t know if we are right in this belief, but it seems a reasonable one to us – if VR has the ability to deprive someone of power, and that feeling can have real psychological harm, then it is also in our ability to help mitigate that by dramatically and demonstrably giving that power back to the player before the experience comes to an end.
For example, what if a player had tools on hand to change the outcome of the encounter before it ended in a negative way? How different would our childhood memories of the schoolyard bully be if our bodies had been immovable when shoved, or we could mute their words at the push of a button? 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?
I believe it might be. I believe that this obnoxious player would have been annoying and adolescent, and then when gone, the game would have continued. And when it was done, there would not have been the feeling of a battle that was still being fought days after the fact.
It would instead have the feeling of a battle that was won.
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. This highlights for me the potential and dangers of VR itself. The medium should force us to really think about how the sense of “presence” changes interactions that would feel less threatening in a different digital environment.
Thankfully, with the amazing power of VR, where one person’s perspective of reality does not have to match the other person’s in the same game, it’s actually possible to do this without ruining the game for everyone.
With all the above in mind, Jonathan and I revisited our Personal Bubble setting. The changes we made were slight, and potentially more symbolic than consequential. We’re not really sure, but we’ll see. Before, when a player turned on their personal setting, you had to do it by pushing pause, browsing a menu, and selecting it. When it turned on, there was no announcement; the hands of other players simply faded away when they reached for you.
Now, though, activating 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.
To prevent people from using this as a way to grief other players – another issue VR has to deal with – the visual effects are generally localized to each player’s perspective. If you are standing next to someone that activates their Personal Bubble, the ripple of power passes through you, and they vanish from your perception. It’s as if they are no longer in the same dimension as you, so long as you’re close enough to be in each other’s way. Doing so also mutes the other players from your own system so you can’t hear them, and walks you through selectively turning back on only those you want to hear.
We don’t know if this solution will work perfectly, and it’s certainly not the only solution; like everyone in VR, we’re just learning how to approach these very real problems. But, we think it’s a reasonable place to join the conversation, and it’s worth thinking through what new obligations and responsibilities VR developers have when given the ability to literally create a player’s self image.
THE POWER GESTURE AS 911 FOR VR EXPERIENCES
Could a gesture that creates a kind of protective bubble become standard in multiplayer experiences?
As I was soliciting feedback on this perspective from other members of the community, a theme emerged. Non-VR players really liked the idea of the Power Gesture – a pro-active motion the you knew going into the game could call up defenses if you needed out. Yes, you can always simply take off your HMD, but that is just fleeing the environment, and leaves all the possible threat for when you put it back on. It doesn’t solve anything. The same can be argued for disguising a player’s voice so they can play in peace – while a possible solution, we also need to offer tools that give players better controls, not simply better ways to hide. VR has the unique power to do that.
I’d think it would be interesting if the concept of the Power Gesture were to become a part of the VR design thinking. Whatever the details of that gesture might be, the concept is simple – a single, cross-platform and cross-game action that players can rely on as their call to a safe space. Like 911, which is the number we all know to call for help in the United States regardless of which state you happen to live in, it would be a gesture that we teach to our kids and all VR players in the event something goes wrong.
With that possibility in mind, we’re going to contribute our code for the Personal Bubble to the excellent open source framework, VR Toolkit. It will have to be tweaked for each game, of course, but perhaps it can be built on if useful. Or, maybe there are better solutions to the same issue. Part of the VR journey is that we’re all building these roads from scratch as we go.
Perhaps “power gesture enabled” can be a concept that’s part of the VR development language – the 911 gesture of protection and safe space, be it against sexual harassment, bullying, or any other form of unwanted confrontation. So when things don’t go well, when something happens that we as developers can’t predict and shield our players from, there’s always a safe place to be found – hopefully not just in QuiVr – but in VR in general.
#GamerGate And The Treatment Of Women In The Industry
In late 2014, a debate manifested throughout the underbelly of the gaming community. It concerned two elements: video game journalism ethics and the role that women play within the genre.
And a few years prior, feminist vlogger and gamer enthusiast Anita Sarkeesian was aggressively criticized after launching a campaign to fund her video series Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, a production that examined gender roles within the genre.
All three women, in varying degrees, reportedly received intense backlash, from abusive memes to unflinchingly cruel comments in social feeds.
Overall, the Harvard Business School reports about 56 percent of women who start in the technology field leave mid-career, double the rate of men, in some cases based on instances of sexism in the workplace.
To help combat the Internet trolls, as Jesse Fox calls them, Rep. Katherine Clark, D-Mass., has campaigned for more effective tactics for dealing with online harassment. Furthermore, organizations such as Crash Override Network assist with the creation of safe spaces for those who feel they’ve been attacked online.
But there’s still work to be done, Fox says. Because whether the industry is aware or not, “the adolescent teenage male gamer,” is a thing of the past.
At 31 percent, women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population than the 17 percent that concerns men age 18 or younger, according to the Entertainment Software Association.
Fox says QuiVr’s response to Belamire’s claim is one step in the right direction.
“I really appreciate what QuiVr has done,” Fox says. “It’s empowering users to decide when they’re uncomfortable. That being said, trolls are trolls. And that’s a little hard to deal with.”
Fox offers one piece of advice for those in the industry still trying to play catch-up.
“Don’t be on team troll.”