VR expands risks of online harassment

Online games and social networks are already hotbeds of bad behavior, but virtual reality offers an even higher degree of potential harm — and experts are urging VR innovators to build in more safeguards from the ground up. That includes building in controls to deter bad behavior and giving users more controls over their own environment and interactions with others.

Virtual harassment is no joke

Video game players are used to getting physically attacked by monsters or other players as part of the game. But when those attacks become personal or sexual, or take place outside a gaming environment in a social platform, or follow the victim to multiple channels or offline then the situation can become uncomfortable, scary, or even actually dangerous in real life.

“Virtual reality makes emotional and physical action more intense, things are heightened in virtual reality, ” Pooky Amsterdam,  CEO of PookyMedia, told Hypergrid Business.

For example, when the virtual avatar mirrors the user’s own hand motions, facial expressions, or full body movements, the feeling of being immersed in the virtual environment is intensified, she said. And so is the experience of harassment.

Game designer Patrick Harris showed a video demonstrating in-game virtual harassment during the GDC 2016 conference in March that included obscene gestures and invasion of a female player’s personal space that left the conference audience in “stunned, dismayed silence,” Polygon reported.

“It is intense, it is visceral [and] it triggers your fight or flight response,” said Harris, who works for game studio Minority Media. “They can lean in and touch your chest and groin and it’s really scary.”


Other developers have reported that it is common to see male avatars swarming around female avatars, males groping 3D models of female users, and shaking controllers around their crotch areas while uttering words that suggest sexual engagement with them.

A male avatar rubbing his chest while making suggestive comments, though intended as playful banter with other male players, created a tense and uncomfortable experience for video game company executive Renee Gittins.

“I don’t believe it was malicious at all, but it still had a real effect on my experience,” said Gittins, the CEO of video game company Stumbling Cat, in a blog post.

Courtesy of Altspace VR

AltspaceVR is a leading social platform for virtual reality, with support for the Oculus Rift and Gear VR. (Image courtesy Altspace VR.)

“While I found the experience to be extremely unpleasant, it did not reduce my interest in virtual reality gaming,” Gittins told Hypergrid Business. “Of course, I can’t say that I am the best example for dealing with the effects of such an experience, because I am one of the women who have continued gaming while battling sexism and harassment in games for the past decade and a half. There are plenty of women who would have reduced interest in virtual reality after such an experience, just as I have had many female friends drop out of gaming over the years. I just happen to be a particular stubborn breed.”

Widespread harassment, especially on virtual social networks, as a result of harassment could directly impact impact a company’s bottom line by costing them female users.

“The freedom to create, to make friends and to express oneself is what draws so much talent and energy to virtual reality,” said PookyMedia’s Amsterdam. “A climate where people are also free from harassment encourages more community and productivity.”

Many security options available for developers

Proactive companies have a variety of options for curbing virtual harassment before it starts, responding to it after it happens, and helping users protect themselves.

Platforms can allow users to easily report instances of harassment, filter offensive or abusive language, automatically put offenders on notice and then ban repeat offenders. Reporting functionality could include recordings of what occurred before and after the report was made.

That will not completely eliminate harassment, said Amsterdam, but it will definitely make players stop and think.

The worst offenders, those who are seriously dedicated to harassing others, may find ways around the automated controls. But many will change their behavior in order to continue using the platforms.

Giving users defensive capabilities will also help.

Features that people can use to project themselves in a virtual environment include include the option to mute or ignore other users, said Amsterdam. Event organizers could have the power to allow only invited guests, or to eject those who behave badly.

User can also be given the power to control who can see their avatars, to make other users invisible, to not show gestures or body motions, and to create bubbles of personal space that other users cannot enter, suggested Gittins.

“Obviously not all of these options work for all games, especially competitive multiplayer games, but they do help,” she said. “I have talked with many developers to help ensure that the virtual reality space and interactions can be controlled by the user so that harassment can be shut down immediately. Hopefully, these will reduce the occurrence and effects of these negative experiences.”

Still from The 1st Question.

Still from The 1st Question.

One platform with plenty of experience in dealing with virtual harassment is Second Life. Amsterdam hosts an in-world show called The 1st Question, a science-based quiz show, which has been a target of attacks from in-world harassers known as “griefers” in Second Life.

For example, in one case, the set had to be closed so that only invited guests were allowed to enter the region.

“To keep people away from the set itself we had an invisible barrier constructed so those who weren’t on the show were held back,” said Amsterdam.

In addition, the “particle” functionality was turned off for avatars in the area, and a second set was ready as a backup at an undisclosed location in case the griefers continued their attack from a neighboring region.

“There are certainly ways to contain these kinds of willful distractions,” she said.

Second Life has published a couple of guides to handling in-world harassment, including a wiki about dealing with griefers and a knowledge base article.

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David Kariuki

David Kariuki is a technology journalist who has a wide range of experience reporting about modern technology solutions. A graduate of Kenya's Moi University, he also writes for Cleanleap, and has previously worked for Resources Quarterly and Construction Review. Email him at [email protected].

18 Responses

  1. I’d also like to add that virtual gatherings are in many ways similar to real ones. If you have a thousand people at a concert or shopping mall or conference hall, you’re going to need some security staff around. Just by being visible, they’ll cut down on instances of bad behavior, but they’ll also provide a set of eyes to watch for people causing trouble. These security staffers need to have some kind of indication that they’re official (not just another attacker in disguise), and have the power to mute, block or ban people from the event. (Maybe even from the platform as a whole, if their behavior is really bad and ongoing.)

    • da.tonyhayward@gmail.com' Da Hayward says:

      Yes I agree Maria, On the DOR regions in AviWorlds we do look out for any behavior as mentioned in the article. If we see it or hear of any we tell the offenders to knock it off, if they wan’t to debate it or argue about it we simply ban them on our regions and then notify the grid management, The worst cases of this I have seen has been on second life with one such person running a page similar to this for the sole reason to harass people. Unfortunately LL seems to want to turn a blind eye to it.
      Our view on anyone visiting DOR is be mature, be respectful and don’t ruin anyone else’s fun

  2. trrlynn73@gmail.com' Minethereé says:

    I’ve been harassed and bullied so much it hardly matters to me anymore. Since they are in the minority, those types, I just try to keep perspective…that there is so much more people who are cool and nice and funny.

    It’s impossible to deal with them fully, in some cases, and when things can’t be done I see no reason to let it bother me all that much.

    I am unconcerned about any “real” bother anyway.

    I think of this as a game, though, and as many people feel more immersed I can certainly understand it bothering them more.

    In opensim I can simply create a new avatar and pass or use IARs to give it what I want it to have, and go to places where I might run into such types, and they will be nice and have conversations with me that they would not if I used the avie name which I use here and in other outworld social places.

    In any case, griefers/bullies have a lowlife mentality or they would not engage in such things to begin with, even if they themselves are not aware of this…lowlife people I have no use for and is not why I play in opensim.

  3. Google is also stepping up and looking at this issue:

    Robbie Tilton, Designer and Prototype on Google’s Daydream Labs team, this week said that developers should “start thinking about “rules and logic” that will prevent VR trolling before it starts up as they create their content.” : http://uploadvr.com/google-vr-trolling/

  4. rv@spiritmoving.com' Rene says:

    While the article is quite right that the sense of harassment can feel extremely intense, it misses the fact that everyone has an equal footing over their ability to deal with direct harassment. VR (or more specifically virtual world systems) can eliminate almost all of the power-over-other problems. If someone decides to get up close and personal with your avatar (and with you, since in VR you are in your avatar), you can drop kick them or push-gun them miles away. You can, as is available today in current virtual worlds, have them banned. Once people realize they have equal power to their would-be harassers, it sorts itself out quickly. The bigger harassment problems are not direct confrontation but stalking, and that can be dealt with by stopping a person from being able to track your whereabouts using your ID. That one is being discussed in HF, where IDs may be immutable but what you can do with them is severely limited and, in particular, geo-locating an avatar outside of the immediate area is strictly prohibited. The use of your ID is permission based and revocable too so that a would-be attacker has no means to execute scripted attacks directed at your avatar. So, yes, there are griefer issues but those already can be dealt with and a few additional tweaks can mostly contain the problems.

    • You have to factor in that not everyone perceives certain interactions the same way. For example, someone used to being smaller and weaker than other people might not instinctively react by drop-kicking them, but would react by getting scared, by freezing, or by trying to hide.

      Someone big and tough in real life may rarely face the issue of physical intimidation, and if it happens, will react very differently.

      Since virtual reality feels so real, its easy for your real-world habits to come into play. Maybe, with time and practice, players learn about their in-world capabilities and start feeling that they’re on an equal physical footing with everyone else. But for first-time users, it might be a problem.

      People who have survived physical attacks in real life might have even stronger reactions, with virtual attacks triggering real and scary memories. With a trained therapist, virtual reality can help people overcome PTSD. But in a random setting, it might just make things worse.

      • rv@spiritmoving.com' Rene says:

        Yes, the feeling of powerlessness is real. Which is why packing a Browning High Power Push Gun ™ levels that playing field. Or much better is teaching virtual self-defense, that because of the equalizing factor makes its far more effective in VR.
        I think that trying to find ways to neutralize peoples ability to express hostile intentions to others, so that others are always or even mostly safe, also neutralizes the ability to express anything generally for everyone else. It becomes severe and immediate censorship.

        • You would never say that in real life, though! Imagine saying that people should be allowed to verbally or physically attack others, and that everyone should pack a gun or learn self-defense to deal with it.

          Okay, some people might say it.

          But most of us would be horrified.

          And that’s the thing about virtual reality — it feels very real. And, again, even if you do agree that people should pack virtual guns or learn virtual self-defense, newcomers to VR won’t have those skills yet. As a result, platforms that allow this kind of behavior would be extremely off-putting to new users, and it would hurt adoption.

          • rv@spiritmoving.com' Rene says:

            “You would never say that in real life”. In part I would (though personally for me, not a gun). I have stood up to attacks in real life. I know of women who have stood up to attacks and be better off than the passive consequences. Fight back then run like hell works better. But, the important takeaway, Maria, is that VR is not real life. As Morpheus says “In the Matrix, the limitations are all in your mind”. There is no need to limit the responses or to feel the powerlessness of RL in VR. If so, why bother with VR?

          • rv@spiritmoving.com' Rene says:

            Adding to this, please do not misconstrue that I am somehow advocating it is OK to grief or harass others. I am totally against that. I am saying we do not have to put up with it and that we in VR have the means and tools to deal with that kind of harassment. To limit everyone of a range of expression that has some components that could be construed as harassment would be a crippling change to VR.

          • da.tonyhayward@gmail.com' Da Hayward says:

            very good points on both sides. The thing with VR is a lot of people do take their experiences inworld with them when they log off…its a human condition. As i said earlier if i catch anyone harassing or “griefing” anyone on the DOR regions they are asked to stop. If they wish to debate the issue or argue I just simply ban them on our regions, then report them to the grid owner/operator. There is no place for personal abuse or accusations in either RL or VR, it is immature, irresponsible and the ones partaking in this really do need to get a life instead of pulling someone else down. Most of us who have been around awhile know the offenders, these people don’t get near my regions.

      • trrlynn73@gmail.com' Minethereé says:

        I think the issue is even more complex than things posted here already. There is the issue of grid owners, rather in their own grids or others who have their own mini-grids that are popping up a lot lately.

        It is interesting to me as that some people think just because some person runs a grid that they are all of a sudden kind, decent, smart, the last word.

        I think it is due to many people’s’ knee-jerk reaction to those who they feel are in authority. Personally, I see all people the same, it hardly matters to me if someone in authority says this or that, or does this or that…the reality is that they are just trying to run a business or in the case of a person’s minigrid, to do whatever they like.

        I have not seen any other grid owners to be all that special, in truth. Ilan, as far as I know, has real business experience and training…others just want to do this grid thing, many because they have no real ability to do much more than they can possibly make doing this.

        I have seen bannings by grid owners for no reason, or they make one up, or they simple are unable to see the picture properly…which is why it points to any real business sense.

        And if a grid owner wants you out, you will be out, and that is that.

        I know of a guy who runs his own simulators, a well known and likeable guy, who has removed access to GCG…I read the stories, but it just comes down to it is his, and he can do whatever he wants to do.

        The same with largest grids.

        One once not only banned many people but then went further to remove access to Metropolis, even tho the story around it all was specius to say the least. And even so, they had tons of supporters.

        Another removed account access for more specious reasons but then added to their TOS what they thought would them control such things in the future better.

        They had their own supporters also.

        Another grid removed account access to Linda Kellie…which still amazes me, but in time, just in all things, people forget or just don’t care in the first place. I was around her at that time and saw/read how it went down. The grid owner knew much less than she thought.

        And they had their own supporters also, people who disliked Linda, and were vehement about it…wth?

        Some people just support their authority figures and that is that, for them.

        The bottom line in all this is plain and simple apathy…some people don’t really care as long as they are not bothered personally, others don’t care at all, others just believe what they are told, and then repeat that, which is just made up in the first place, like they are some authority on the matter…when if they actually did care, they could find out more. Like from the victim.

        Apathy really rules tho…and just talking about these issues without actually standing up for the inequalities, is just that, talk.

        Personally, I have never been a milquetoast…even as time moves on and I have to moderate what I do more and more.

        oh well, life goes on-))

        • da.tonyhayward@gmail.com' Da Hayward says:

          yes very true there are some grid owners like that, I would like to think we take a more responsible attitude to banning, mainly the one thing someone will get banned on at DOR is harassing another user or griefing.
          When I say harassing i mean insulting, childish behavior said or done to hurt someone. In saying that every body has the opportunity to apologize as well.

          • trrlynn73@gmail.com' Minethereé says:

            yes…the thing is that such things are also harassment. I think for several reasons they can get away with it, over and over, even when several people are involved.

            1) any mention of the word “drama” and most people will just back off, which is ridiculous on the face of it… why would anybody listen and let such things guide their lives…that’s weird to me. There are those who will attempt to divert attention from the real issues by simply saying “oh that’s just a drama queen…even when it is themselves who are saying it…that’s weird to me also.

            2) I don’t think that being a grid owner automatically confers some kind of royalty on those sysops in the first place…why would I?, that’s just nuts.

            3) I don’t play other games but I expect this kind of nonsense is part and parcel of them anymore, which twists the entire matter negatively.

            I have seen such things enough to wonder why people even stick around when they see or hear of such bad customer service, from people who obviously have no clue what they are doing, so they just ban people.

            I guess I just don’t really understand how things have changed so much over the past decade or two.

          • da.tonyhayward@gmail.com' Da Hayward says:

            in a way yes
            although we have been lucky so far (touch wood)and haven’t had any cause to ban anyone yet, most seem to be people just out to have fun and enjoy themselves. I look upon banning as a serious responsibility which is not to be taken lightly. All grid / region owners need to offer some sort of protection to their users from this, there is two sides to every story but my experience it is the same ones over and over again who cause the trouble.

          • trrlynn73@gmail.com' Minethereé says:

            I totally agree with you, da hayward, I think it is not only a serious responsibility (and only those who actually understand that should apply) but in a case where there is currency, they have a fiduciary responsibility.

            Anyone who handles another person’s money, anywhere, has that same fiduciary obligation.

            A TOS is in reality a guideline that people who use someone else’s space should adhere to. ANY binding documents are only as good as the overall laws give it. If laws are broken then they are, just that.

            And in reality harassment IS against the law in many countries.

            But who will go to the trouble, not me.

            The problem is there is no entry level basic skills required to run a grid…you learn or hire the tech guy and off you can go. A lot of people can do it, really…if they just wanted to.

            anyway, bad weather here again…I may shut down for the day soon.

            nice chatting

          • da.tonyhayward@gmail.com' Da Hayward says:

            nice chatting to you too, that is always the problem if currency is involved and someone is grid banned they should at least be offered a refund of any balance they have on that grid. If the Grid is unable to do this I personally think that the are not qualified to offer an in world currency and you are so right about the skills to run a grid, if one offers a service they need the skills and knowledge to deliver.

          • trrlynn73@gmail.com' Minethereé says:

            They do if they are running a decent business, I think…tho of course there are many businesses who run on the “shady” side…that’s not the word I am looking for, but close.

            I think it speaks to the infancy of this we play. People who have gone to college certainly know about prerequisites.

            This is not really a “professional” business some run. There are not basic requirements to run one, there is no ruling authority to both give licenses and take complaints. No specific laws other than laws of the land.

            I think it would be grand to see some of those I know who have been banned, and have the resources, as well as reputation, to sue some of these grids.

            I think I read of one or another doing so but I don’t recall the details. It was to SL tho I think.

            Even so, it should change things up a bit, tho I doubt such will happen. I would have but this was just to pass time for me…lol

            hmph, I gotta shut down…tc