Feature image via Shutterstock.
I’m sure we’ve all seen the piece on Tech.Mic and originally posted on Medium. The one by Jordan Belamire, entitled My first virtual reality groping. In it, Belamire describes her experience using QuiVR, a castle defense game where you play as an archer and shoot monsters. Your body is transformed to a helmet, hands and a bow. It reminds me of animated suits of armor in D&D. The game looks beautifully rendered, and Belamire says it exceeded expectations. It was all fun and games until she hit multiplayer mode. Then exactly what you expect would happen, happened:
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.
“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.
The story ends with Belamire running through the game, being virtually pursued and harassed. In the end, she took off her headset and concluded that, while women are allowed in QuiVR, there’s little chance of them wanting to be there with experiences like this as a possibility.
Personally, I’ve spent the last three or so years working on a novel in which virtual reality — and virtual harassment — figures heavily. I’d been wondering when we were going to start getting these stories. Because even though multiplayer virtual reality is new, this already cannot be the first time such a thing has happened. To move through the world being gendered as female is to know that this happens everywhere, even when our “bodies” are literal floating helmets — and it happens almost instantly. In the case of Belamire, it happened in her first three minutes of multiplayer.
The men at QuiVR responded. As reported by Kotaku, QuiVR developers Jonathan Shenker and Aaron Stanton took a “uniquely proactive” approach and extended a personal bubble, something they’d already come up with in case people tried to put their hands in a players face:
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?
Men not conceiving of possibilities for violence that are obvious to women and other marginalized people isn’t new; the road to hell is paved with well-intentioned men. I think I have an inkling of how two developers might have overlooked something so obvious. After all, cyberspace was never built for us; it was built by and for straight cis white men. We are already seeing the repercussions of an entire facet of our existence being designed and built by only a small subset of its end user demographic in many areas of tech, and now we are repeating our mistakes with virtual reality. As with most of the tech sector, VR environments seem to be developed mostly by men
But these two particular male developers really read Belamire’s account. They read it and took it to heart. And while it’s sad that it’s “uniquely” proactive (I wish more developers would do this!), they did not just extend an already-in-use mechanic. They came up with something new: the power gesture.
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.
Even though I think this could have been enacted out of the gate if a more diverse pool of talent were part of the game’s development, I also think this is actually brilliant. And I don’t mean that in “a giving cookies to men for being decent” way. I think it’s a brilliant use of design to counteract a problem that’s present across different VR experiences. And as they’ve added their innovation to the open source framework VR Toolkit, it has the possibility to catch on. And the reason I think it’s so brilliant is because it works off of something we’ve done for our whole lives.
Shenker and Stanton, in their response piece on Upload VR, talk about instances of childhood bullying and how formative it can be. They’ve hit on a piece of social structure that’s been present forever — refusing to play with the assholes. That’s power that some of us have had (barring teachers, parents or other adults that interfered). If we didn’t like how someone was behaving, we could ideally choose not to play with them. The power gesture is an adult version of that. It will enable us to curate a group of likeminded people who are not assholes. I think it’s wonderful.
This social strategy, while being extremely effective at making sure I only ever got detention twice because I was a huge nerd who broke basically no rules because I cultivated a group of similar human beings, can also go the other way. I remember being a girl who LOVED to play with legos. And the boys in my after-school program told me girls couldn’t. I had a keen nose for bullshit, and I told a teacher, who forced them to let me play. Eventually they were cool, but there was an adjustment period. Refusing to play can create an echo chamber. It can magnify the bad in a group, instead of the good.
But that’s only in reality-reality. In virtual reality, not everyone’s perspectives need look the same. In this case, they don’t. The other player can just go back to playing. Even if some asshole dude ran around power gesturing every time he heard a voice that seemed female, it doesn’t affect the players he’s doing that to. There is no punishment for marginalized groups in the power gesture’s implementation like there is for so many systems in place to deal with harassment. In short, rad.
That lack of punishment also represents something dissatisfying here, though — no consequences for the people who harass. But that’s not on these game devs; that’s not on VR to fix. What we can do is work for more diversity in the creators of VR experiences — the more environments designed for us by us, the less normal we can make harassment in these digital spaces, and the more often we can see developers design their products with the reality of harassment in mind so that users can be safer from the outset. Queers, let’s get in here and do the thing. And thanks to these good folks, y’all can build on that power gesture in your own projects. Now if only we could use it in meatspace…