Virtual Reality is a powerful and intimate technology. Because of this, considerations must be made by developers to mitigate any abuse or bullying inside VR platforms. Internet gaming has evolved over the last 20 years and we can use all manner of lessons learned here to ensure that VR becomes a universally fun and stress-free staple of modern gaming.
In a VR world, the experience of embodying your avatar is much more visceral than in traditional video games. Someone violating the personal space of your avatar or making rude gestures in your direction can feel a lot more personal and offensive than if the same were done in a traditional video game — the effect is magnified due to the shift in perspective and availability of movement in 6 axes. You really become a part of that world, and while that opens up new levels of intimacy to connect and share the experience with players across the globe, left unchecked it could provide a platform that is rife with bullying and trolls.
Abusive situations such as items being repeatedly thrown, or a player being blocked from moving or accessing their controls, has the potential to ruin what would otherwise be a unique and enjoyable experience. This takes control away from the user and in the most extreme cases, they have no choice but to leave the simulation and potentially not return due to feelings of not being in control of their virtual representation in that space.
These kinds of issues must be taken into account at the earliest stages of designing and developing VR experiences. Solutions must be implemented that minimize potential discomfort and that work to prevent, inhibit or discourage actions that can cause offense or embarrassment.
Because VR is a bodily-centered gaming experience, there needs to be an awareness from developers that users are entering the VR arena with their own two hands and occupying a ‘physical’ space.
Social VR simulation Recroom tested the tools for preventing harassment in such situations by deploying a blocking system that renders the offender as a ghost to whoever has blocked them. It was however discovered that this proved ineffective, as the ‘performance’ side of harassment was still present — even if the victim wasn’t able to see or hear it, the perpetrator was able to continue the abuse for third parties to cheer on, feeding a negative community environment.
This was later solved by rendering both parties completely invisible to each other when a block had been initiated.
Elements of design can be implemented to encourage player behavior, such as posters that enforce the rules, or reduced functionality to try and lead the user down a particular path. This can be limiting, especially in a VR project that aims to be open-world, and so other preventative and reactive methods must be considered in building an effective and enjoyable VR title.
High Fidelity Blog implemented a system for their VR platform that disallows players to enter one another’s personal space, creating a bubble around each user that other users would be teleported away from if they tried to walk through. This helps to prevent other players from getting in each other’s way and goes a long way to avoid gestural and bodily harassment.
Some VR game designers have implemented the use of hand gestures which can instantly block an abusive player. This type of solution can help people gain some control back quickly when feeling like someone is ‘in their face’. A player feeling harassed would be able to react in a physical way, helping them maintain control over their experience as well as enforcing their sense of agency.
Privacy controls could offer a player the ability to become invisible and limit who can interact with them, as well as being able to set themselves to fully public — dependant on the person’s mood or gaming style. Giving players the ability to opt-in or out of specific communities allows for more control and customization over how they want to interact with and within the VR world.
Rewarding positive and desirable behaviors conducted by players could help to build a community that respects the rules and is passively supportive of the simulation’s ethos, with some titles managing to self-maintain their community to a degree. Consistent and clear punishment could build trust and confidence among players and encourage community policing which in turn would help regulate the issues as they arise.
One of the biggest topics for debate is deciding how rulebreakers should be punished. Some deterrents for abusive behavior can be seen as fun or as something to achieve, due to the novelty for the sake of some perceived achievement. Putting someone in a virtual jail as a punishment, for example, could be seen as a trophy to hunt or an exciting experience to seek out. All personality types and motivators have to be taken into account when designing the basis for a strong VR community.
We have a responsibility as VR developers and pioneers to deploy mechanisms that protect users.
This is especially true when a majority of new users will be having their first VR experience on our titles, where the expectations can be high and the initial impact will determine their opinion of VR in the future.
Ciaran Foley is CEO of Ukledo and Immersive Entertainment, Inc. a Southern California virtual reality software company developing a new virtual engagement platform called Virtual Universe (VU).
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