On Ethics and VR Harassment

Editor’s Note: This is the first of an ongoing series of posts about ethics in games written by studio members here at Minority. Subscribe to the series to stay in the conversation.

Recently, a story broke about a woman being sexually assaulted in a VR game called QuiVR. The public response to that has been, well, what you’d expect. The usual cesspit of dudes ridiculing her, some skeptical media coverage fueling their outrage, and a few thoughtful articles examining the issue in-depth. What interested me the most was the response by the game’s devs; the sinking dismay that this had happened in their game.

That feeling resonated with me deeply. How could this have happened on my watch? I am not a developer on this project, but I have been working on solutions to harassment in VR for over a year now. I presented some suggestions for how to build preventative mechanics into game design at GDC. I have been actively investigating this issue with Minority in an attempt to build the kind of empathy-driven game experience we are known for in VR. Not just for our benefit, but for the industry as a whole.

Unfortunately, our message at GDC wasn’t well-received, and rightly so. The story that I had mistreated someone in a VR playtest took hold, and everything else I said fell by the wayside. The thing is, I don’t even regret the bad press. My choice to take the brunt of the criticism for that incident was my own. While showing the GDC talk publicly would have clarified much of the misinformation that has been circulating about it, I refrained from doing so at the request of the woman involved in the playtest. Though she had given consent for me to give this talk, she asked us not to release it when the first stories about it went live. She described her experience of being harassed in VR as damaging, she was directly harmed by what happened, and I was going to do whatever she needed to help her recover. But seeing similar harm played out yet again on another woman in a different VR game makes me wish my message at that talk could have been heard. Maybe this never would have happened.

That’s why I am writing today, to release the work that has been happening here at Minority to tackle VR harassment. My hope is that some small part of this work will help the industry prevent further harm. In order to do that, I am going to share some of the events that I talked about during my presentation at GDC.

It began when I was asked by a superior to to think of ways a player could harass someone in a multiplayer VR prototype we had been working on. The purpose of this was find out whether we could build anti-harassment technology into a multiplayer VR game, and what those systems would be. So I booted up the prototype, invited a coworker, and at the instructions of my superior, went about trying to harass them in the ways that players usually harass each other in other games – that is to say, using vile, sexist, and otherwise bigoted slurs and gestures. The playtest was repeated one more time with someone outside of, but familiar with, the studio.

This was entirely unethical, not ok in any way, and no one should ever do this. I was wrong not to stand up to my superior and stop this from happening. Minority as a studio was wrong to not have checks and balances in place to prevent the kind of unilateral decision-making that can cause so much harm.

During my GDC presentation I repeated this sentiment several times, since the reason we were sharing our mistakes was so that other people could learn from them. I stressed the realism of VR and the damage that can be caused by harassment in that space, especially from the bodily violation of those who are the primary targets of sexual assault generally. I also proposed several design mechanics that could help prevent harassment and abuse in VR platforms. One of those, the sphere of protection, would have prevented what happened to that woman in QuiVR, and a very similar system has since been put forth as a solution by the developers of the game.

I deeply regret that our message didn’t resonate far enough to stop more events like this, but absolutely respect the right of the victim of our actions to choose her own path to healing. If that meant silence on my part, so be it. Now that some time has passed, we can move beyond conversations about what could go wrong, and instead start enacting preventative measures as an industry to make sure this never happens again. For our part, that means releasing the results of our internal work to balance power structures, and the work of our ethics consultants and research partners in integrating an ethos of intolerance to harassment and abuse into every aspect of the development process.

One thing we have learned as a result of this work is that harassment in VR, and games in general, isn’t just the result of some special quality of the medium. Simple anonymity is not sufficient to account for the negative behaviours in which some gamers participate. If it were, those behaviours wouldn’t have the distinct misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and transphobic tone they do. The kinds of abuses that occur in games are the exact same ones that happen in the rest of life, just magnified and immortalized through the medium.

I am a heterosexual, able-bodied, white, cisgender man living in North America. I am about as privileged as you can get. And as such, I can afford not to fear for my safety where other people would. That doesn’t make me bad, but it does make me ignorant. I can’t automatically see what I don’t personally experience, but what I can do is listen and learn and take responsibility for the ways my privilege leads to harming others, as it did in this case. We at Minority were wrong to assume that diversity in our team and good intentions were enough to make great games that bypassed all those issues. Systemic oppression is more complex than we can handle on our own while trying to make great games within tight deadlines. External guidance from experts on these topics is the only way we can integrate a policy of harm reduction into our studio.

We cannot evolve as an industry until we incorporate a moral framework that is intolerant of harassment and assault into the very mechanics of our games. From HR to Animation to Programming, we are all responsible for taking action to address these issues. But I am a game designer, and my job is to make good games. I just happen to believe that good games shouldn’t harm people.

Patrick Harris is a game designer with over 10 years of experience. Follow him @Doctor_Fatty on Twitter.