Why we need to discuss Ethics in Virtual Reality…like….now

If you commit a crime in ‘virtual reality’ should that be judged as a crime in (real world) ‘physical reality’. [All sounds very ‘Minority Reportish’ doesn’t it?]

But it’s not.

Instinctively you may be tempted to say — “No! Just because you enjoy playing Shoot ’Em Up games such as Call of Duty doesn’t mean you are a criminal and would in real life behave the same way!”

But on that basis what about if the virtual environment and character you are in is where you can molest and kill (virtual) children? What then? Has a moral boundary being crossed?

Difficulty defining ‘real’

In the late 1990's I read a book called Otherland by Tad Williams. Otherland is science fiction and set on Earth somewhere in the late 21st century where technology has advanced to the extent that there is now widespread availability of full-immersion virtual reality technology, which allows people to access an online world called (not so creatively in hindsight!) The Net.

Without giving too much away suffice to say that the protagonist notices kids are ‘disappearing’. I should add the stakes are upped in that in The Net if characters die online, they die in real life. [As an aside I was so taken with the series that when I first read it I wrote to the author asking him when the next volume would be available!]

Today, I read an article in the Brooking’s by Darrell M West which reminded me of Otherland.

The article referred to a play called The Nether playing in Washington, D.C., where playwright Jennifer Haley explores technology ,morality and what are the rightful boundaries of human experience in VR. The Nether explore what happens when virtual reality crosses into unethical territory? For example use of advanced software to create a VR environment where adults molest and kill children.

As Otherland’s protagonist Renie Sulaweyo says the issue about what is real and unreal is not always that simple.

“Well, the difference between an imagined something — a concept — and a real thing used to be fairly straightforward….but what if you could make something that felt like a real thing, tasted like it, smelled like it, but wasn't that thing — wasn't a “thing” at all, but only a symbol of a thing, like a picture? 
- [City of Golden Shadows, Vol 1, Otherland by Tad Williams.p.38]

So as the issue of VR becomes more pervasive where does that leave us as a society?

Too early to decide?

In 1999 an article appeared in Ethics and Information Technology, in it the author and philosopher Peter Brey states:

“Regarding behavior in VR, it is argued that VR applications may allow behavior that would be unethical when performed in the real world, but that is too early to decide whether some such behaviors are immoral or should be disallowed in VR.”

However Brey did go on to say that creators have a ‘moral’ responsibility about what they create.

It is argued that developers of VR applications have a moral responsibility to reflect on the moral aspects of the way in which behavioral options and the consequences of actions are structured and represented in VR applications, as well as a responsibility to take proper measures to limit misrepresentation and biased representation in VR applications.

While in 1999 it may have been understandable to adopt a wait and see approach now given the pace of VR technological development it seems the same cannot be said.

Experiences matter

In the Brookings article West references studies by academic Diana Russell on a case against pornography and how there is evidence that repeated exposure to pornography leads to sexual objectification of women as well as a tendency to legitimize violent attitudes and behaviours towards women.

And studies of children exposed to violent media have shown that they may become numb to violence, imitate the violence, and show more aggressive behavior.

Mind you, there is not agreement on these findings. A 2015 Oxford University study reported that playing violent video games is “no more likely to be damaging to young children’s behaviour than those considered harmless”.

So, does this mean VR should just be considered the same as video games? That the same rules or game development code of ethics can be applied?

I’m not convinced. To me the key word we need to focus on when considering VR and ethics is - experience.

As Stanford University professor Jeremy Bailenson says his 15 years of research has show that virtual reality “can change how a user thinks and behaves, in part because it is so realistic”.

Bailenson also went onto say:

“…we shouldn’t fathom this [ VR] as a media experience; we should fathom it as an experience”.

Bailenson has a point but so too does those who say video games are also ‘experiences’ as well as virtual worlds like Second Life for example and that perhaps the same codes can apply to VR. That we do not need to reinvent the wheel.

Or perhaps this topic is big enough that it deserves special focus and attention by the industry and stakeholders? And this attention needs to happen sooner rather than later. After all experiences do matter.

What’s your thoughts? Would love to know.

My name is Ann Nolan and I am the co-founder of Australian based VR startup Snobal . — @annnolan | www.snobal.io | @snobal3D