In mid-October, a woman was groped in a virtual reality game. Jordan Belamire was playing QuiVR, a medieval action game. She was on multi-player mode, and another player detected from her voice that she was a woman. Before she knew it, his avatar was approaching hers and rubbing its chest and groping its crotch.
At first, Belamire laughed. Her avatar in the game was just a helmet, hands and bow after all, and someone molesting it seemed humorous rather than offensive. But then she was struck by panic. She wanted to get away from the other player, but he chased her, continuing to rub and grope. She was completely immersed in the virtual reality world; it actually felt like the other player was bearing down on her. The harassment had begun to feel real.
Storytellers who have been working with virtual reality for some time are not surprised by Belamire’s reaction. A good virtual reality experience “hacks the senses”, explains Gabo Arora, an award-winning documentary film-maker and creative director of UNVR, the UN’s virtual reality app. You feel like you have actually experienced what has happened in the film or game.
Ethical questions have always been asked of the media. Will on-screen violence translate to actual violence? Can graphic images cause trauma? Does watching pornography lead to unrealistic ideas about sex? Can certain material manipulate people’s thoughts ?
But if earlier media creators and storytellers had a knife, virtual reality offers them a meat cleaver. That is how Zain Memon, co-founder and chief technological officer of Memesys Culture Lab, a new media company working with VR that has been founded by film-maker Anand Gandhi, explains it. The VR experience is heightened, and, therefore, so is the potential to influence and traumatize.
After Belamire wrote about her experience of playing QuiVR on the website Medium, the game’s creators, Aaron Stanton and Jonathan Schenker, wrote an empathetic response, saying they were committed to ensuring no one had the same experience in VR again. One solution they proposed was allowing players to make a gesture that would immediately banish anyone making them uncomfortable from their space. Stopping the game or removing your VR headset would feel like a surrender—just as many who have been harassed on social media say they feel when they are hounded into closing down their accounts. A gesture that allowed you to make unwanted elements disappear while you continued to play the game could feel empowering. A similar idea could be employed for VR films. If an experience becomes too traumatic, a viewer could have the option of making that particular scene fade.
But this solution would not solve every problem, for a person may only realize a VR experience has adversely affected him once it is over. Memon’s biggest fear is that VR could be a dangerous tool if storytellers who have always used media to intentionally tell stories that encourage violence get their hands on it. “There’s a good chance of a pro-war storyteller telling us in a heightened version why war is justified,” he says. Imagine terrorist organizations making propaganda experiences that let people feel like they’ve actually committed a violent act.
Arora admits this possibility exists, but doesn’t want VR creators to start censoring themselves as they are still trying to understand the limits of the format, and there’s a lot of positive change it could bring about too. Such as building empathy, which is what Arora tries to do with his films, which let you step into the shoes of people who have suffered. Each VR storyteller needs to come up with an ethical philosophy for himself, Arora says.
Another ethical question for VR is the ramifications of the illusion of disembodiment that the format may create. In this illusion, a person begins to feel ownership of another body. So if you have an avatar in a VR game or movie, you may begin to feel closely connected to it. Thomas Metzinger, a German philosopher, is concerned that people who spend several hours in VR could end up feeling disconnected from their own bodies. He has written a code of conduct for VR that outlines how this illusion can be countered and manipulation prevented.
If our minds do get tricked into confusing our avatars for our own bodies, the dilemmas could be endless. What if it becomes possible to kidnap our avatars? What if someone creates a duplicate of our avatars and makes them engage in pornographic acts? Will we feel like we are being violated? What happens when we are in VR and meeting other avatars, some of which belong to real people and some of which are artificial intelligence?
Virtual reality is going to magnify all the ethical questions media has faced in the past and possibly pose new ones. It’s going to take sensitive creators to make sure the immersive world doesn’t end up being one full of harassment and violent and manipulative imagery