Virtual reality has a huge sexual harassment problem

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AltspaceVR, a "cross-platform virtual environment" that launched on Oculus Rift earlier this month, is supposed to be a kind of giant, immersive multi-player version of "The Sims." Users can explore a VR landscape and carry out "real-world social activities" with other players such as watching movies, playing games, and shopping in virtual stores. It's a cool-sounding, far-out idea—which is why AltspaceVR has raised more than $15 million in venture capital from prestigious firms including Google Ventures and why early testers have raved about the platform's "profound" potential.

Unfortunately, AltspaceVR's virtual world isn't fun for everyone, particularly the women who say they're being continually harassed inside the virtual space.

A thread appeared on the r/oculus subreddit this week titled "AltspaceVR might need a toggle for personal space." In it, user Galaxy345 complained that AltspaceVR had become an unsafe place for women, who tended to get harassed by male users after they appeared in the game:

I have been having a lot of fun in Altspace VR lately, but I noticed how some people get in other peoples faces a lot, especially with leap motion and Vive contollers, even if they ask them not to.

Sadly this is especially bad when a girl comes into the room. Since you can't really control the behaviour in an online chat like that, I would suggest a toggelable function, to provide a personal space that cannot be intruded.

It can really be uncomfortable to have some random person waving his hands in your face and coming up to a few centimeters to your face. It is a great example how immersive VR can be, when you instinctively feel like your personal space is getting invaded.


Other users seconded the poster's opinion:

"I have seen so much sexual harassment in Altspace," wrote user Ocululu.

"Yep I also witnessed a lot of sexual harassment in altspace," wrote user Mannylectro.

Earlier this year, Renee Gittins, a game designer, wrote about her experience being harassed inside a VR game:

…A man turned to me in virtual reality and aggressively rubbed his character’s chest… his chest with his hands, while remarking over the voice chat, “Look at me! I’m rubbing my tits at you!”, I froze. The only response I could muster was letting out a small, insincere “heh” laugh…I was astonished by the discomfort I felt, though. It was palpable.


As virtual reality platforms have started to go mainstream, multi-player experiences are becoming more common. At this year's F8 conference, Facebook announced that it was making a huge push into so-called "social VR," which allows multiple VR users to interact with each other inside a virtual environment. As Re/code puts it, social VR apps would allow you to "play cards with your friends from college, visit your parents in another state or enjoy a concert with your siblings, all while sitting snugly on your couch."

But having multiple virtual avatars interacting in the same space also carries risks—namely, that the users controlling those avatars will seize on the opportunity to act creepy or make untoward advances toward other users. Harassment has long been a problem in first-gen virtual environments such as Second Life, but thanks to the lifelike nature and first-person perspective of VR systems, those advances can be genuinely scary.


During this year's Game Developers Conference, one game designer, Patrick Harris of Minority Media, said during a talk that the intimacy of virtual reality made VR harassment "way, way, way worse" than harassment in a traditional game, or on a forum like Twitter.

"It is intense, it is visceral [and] it triggers your fight or flight response," Harris said. "[Harassers] can lean in and touch your chest and groin and it's really scary."


Harris may have gone too far in proving his point. He showed the audience a clip of an immersive game session, reports Polygon, during which he harassed a female player by "making obscene gestures with a 'phallic' object [and] invading his fellow player's personal space," which she later described as a "damaging experience."

Eric Romo, the founder and CEO of AltspaceVR, told me on Monday that the company is aware of harassment taking place on its platform, and is actively trying to stop it.


"It's been an evolving issue," he said. "The potential downside of bad actors and harassment is, frankly, a lot greater than in, say, online forums or chat streams. You feel like you’re there with someone else."

On its "community standards" page, AltspaceVR says it doesn't tolerate harassment by users, and threatens that "continued harassing behavior will result in a suspension and subsequent determination as to whether the account will be closed permanently." AltspaceVR already has at least one feature that is meant to allow users to prevent harassment: an "ignore" function that, when enabled, freezes another user's avatar in place inside the virtual world, essentially muting them.


But as Romo pointed out, the ignore feature doesn't prevent the first instance of harassment, and users can't be expected to manually ignore every user that harasses them in a massive multi-player game—at least not if the levels of harassment are as high as some AltspaceVR users are reporting.

In his GDC talk, Harris suggested several ways that developers like AltspaceVR could tweak their apps to curb harassment, including giving users the ability to create "personal boundary lines" within the app that other users wouldn't be able to cross.


Romo told me that more anti-harassment features are on the way from AltspaceVR. But as virtual reality apps become more popular, the industry will have to reckon with how to make VR a welcoming place for everyone, not just men.

"We know it's not enough," Romo said.

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