“I have no QA team, the public is my QA team."
With the recent occurrences of digital groping, both at the Tokyo Games Show and within the game QuiVr, the question of harassment within virtual reality is at the forefront of many discussions at the first ever Virtual Reality Developers Conference in San Francisco, an offshoot of the annual Game Developers Conference.
Part of the problem is that many developers simply aren't thinking about potential harassment from the start. With many games being made by small teams rather than huge studios, the impetus to tackle social interactions when there are bigger technical concerns simply isn't there. It is also potentially not something they themselves have experienced online. Game development is a bit more diverse than other tech industries, but only 22 percent of roles are held by women, many of whom leave the industry mid-career.
One of the major concerns with VR is that it brings all of the harassment we see online to a more intimate, virtual environment, where it can feel like other users can invade your personal space. I spoke with Suzanne Leibrick, a VRDC speaker and user experience designer who has experienced VR harassment.
"It's very easy to see other people as not real, as just another video game character, rather than seeing them as a real person," she said. "It becomes much easier to say 'Sure, I can grope this, I can do whatever I want, this isn't a real person,' which is problematic. So we do need to give users tools, like ways to block or mute, or never hear from certain people again that aren't intrusive".
There is also a lack of uniformity in how users go about blocking or muting people they don't want to interact with. There is also a real need to enable users to prioritize their own audio, and to disable other users from talking over you excessively. Some tools appear relatively straightforward, but in action are too time consuming when, as Suzanne described "that person is teleporting around you as fast as they can move while they're harassing you verbally. Simple design choices like that have unintended consequences, they make it harder on the user."
Jonathan Schenker, one of the developers of QuiVr, an archery castle defence game for the HTC Vive, said his small team was quick to react to the virtual groping that occurred within their game. It created a 'power gesture' that blocked the harasser by dissolving them from your view. When I asked him about user testing, he told me "I have no QA team, the public is my QA team. When events like this happen, I understand the necessity and the want for people to hold the developer accountable, but at the same time, the game being played is a technical alpha, and the entire function of it is to get feedback to learn what is and isn't working".
That seems to be the crux of many harassment concerns in VR—that developers need to know when social problems arise so they can create tools, which sets a tone that harassment will not be tolerated. The more people talk about their experiences, the more user safety settings will be introduced to combat harassment and bad behavior. As speaker Banun Idris added "What we've learned from MMOs and the internet en masse, is it doesn't really matter unless we can hold users accountable for their actions. The way I think about it is: as developers and designers, we have the responsibility to do all that we can to discourage and not to reward unethical behavior.
VR has a lot potential, and to extend far beyond the gaming space, which is why developers have to take the issue of harassment so seriously. For Jonathan Schenken, the need to provide users with tools is clear cut: "Any time that someone gets turned away from VR is a tragedy, because it's just so freaking cool".