Social VR won’t be awesome if it’s populated with assholes

Eva Hoerth
Feb 6, 2017 · 7 min read

Raise your hand if you’re excited about hanging out in virtual reality with friends from across the world.

HELL YEA! Never thought I’d use Zac Efron in a blog post, but here we are. Source

If you raised your hand, you’ve probably heard about VR and the social possibilities it enables. Noteworthy social VR platforms already available to consumers include AltspaceVR, High Fidelity, Rec Room, Pluto VR, VRChat, vTime — and let’s not forget that Facebook is cooking something up.

There’s going to be a ton of social content emerging in the coming years. Before you know it, hanging out with your friends in VR will be just as normal as chatting in Facebook messenger.

Like all social platforms, there’s going to be friends, but there’s also going to be assholes. While we may not be able to completely eliminate the assholes, we still need to try.

VR’s success relies on it.

Facebook is all in on VR, so it’s going to be social no matter what. Source

Don’t be fooled by the “virtual” in virtual reality

In October last year, Jordan Belamire shared her experience with physical harassment in a social VR game called QuiVr. Here’s some things that were said by (an overwhelming amount of people) in response to her story:

“But, in VR, you don’t have a real body. You’re just an avatar. You aren’t actually being touched — nothing actually happens to you.”

(I’m wording this lightly. If you want to see responses verbatim, go check out the comment section of the QuiVr article on Upload. Be careful though, as some of them can be triggering along the lines of rape/sexual harassment.)

When looking at things literally, part of this statement is true.

“But, in VR, you don’t have a real body. You’re just an avatar.”

Sure, in VR, you are most often represented by some sort of avatar, whether it looks like you or not. This avatar is made up of pixels and does not have the physical characteristics of our human bodies. We do not physically feel our body colliding with virtual objects (yet).

An example of how our body’s movements are translated to our avatars. Source

For example, if I reach out and poke my friend’s shoulder in VR, I don’t actually feel the impact of my finger on their shoulder (unless there are some haptics built in, which many social VR apps don’t currently have).

But this is where the statement above becomes flawed:

“You aren’t actually being touched — nothing actually happens to you.”

When interpreting the impact of a virtual environment on your body, it doesn’t matter whether your avatar is a “real” body.

In VR, your mind is present even when your body is not. This is key, because your brain is what translates things that happen to or around you into emotional reactions (like pleasure, fear, pain, or discomfort). These feelings are embedded into our memory.

If this wasn’t true, then why has VR helped paraplegics walk again? Source

The rubber hand illusion is a great example of this. Jessica Outlaw, experience researcher and founder of Data Driven LLC, referenced this experiment during one of her VR workshops.

You don’t need to physically feel to interpret discomfort. Source

In the rubber hand example above, our mind is “tricked not only into disowning parts of our bodies, but also into owning parts that don’t actually belong to us — in this case, a rubber hand.” (Source) This rubber hand can be compared to our hands in VR.

Even though the fork didn’t actually stab the guy’s hand above, he still reacted as if it did. And this is just based off of basic cognitive processing. It’s pretty hard to argue against…science.

Same goes toward the terrifying spider fest below:

Can I get a NOPE? Source

In the larger GIF above, those aren’t his real hands, only a virtual representation. But he responded the same way as if spiders were actually chillin’ on his desk.

We tend to rip off VR headsets when we feel this level of fear or discomfort in VR. We want a quick escape. The same can happen when we’re getting groped, for example, in a virtual space. It’s crucial that we keep this “real” virtual reality in mind when designing for social VR, especially the public spaces that are full of unexpected user behaviors.

Why is this important to me, a VR creator?

If you’re designing a VR experience, especially one that’s social, your players, users, and consumers should want to use it, right? Then we’re going to have to design carefully. We have to tackle some big questions, like harassment, before VR goes mainstream.

Social experiences like AltspaceVR, High Fidelity, QuiVr, VREAL, and others are actively exploring solutions that will reduce harassment in their platforms. But it’s hard to come up with all the answers when we’re this early on. We have to iterate.

If we don’t make it a habit to design with harassment in mind, we will see:

  • People abandon VR if they don’t feel comfortable using it

I don’t want to be the Debbie Downer here, but I don’t think neither you or I want these things to happen.

Me when I hear about a case of VR harassment. Source

So how can we make sure that VR is the magical medium we’ve preached it to be? I have one idea that might help.


It’s time to bring in the field experts

It is not an easy task to figure out how to prevent harassment in VR. I’ve spoken to many VR creators about this topic, and they’ve all expressed something along the lines of:

“I do not know how to design for harassment when I myself have never been harassed.”

“It’s hard to tell what forms of harassment can exist in VR when it hasn’t fully reached the wild.”

“Muting and blocking seem like they should work, but I would rather learn how to prevent harassment from happening in the first place. I don’t want to put work on the person being targeted.”

“I don’t have a lot of time to design harassment solutions and I’m lacking the funds to hire someone else to do it.”

These pretty much all translate to:

Everyone in VR rn tbh. Source

And that’s okay! None of us actually know what we should be doing with VR yet (not even Facebook, HTC, or Google).

But if we invite voices beyond the VR industry to help us, we will be able to broaden our understanding of this technology and come up with more creative solutions.

All around us are cognitive researchers (like Jessica Outlaw), psychologists, and field experts who specialize in topics like harassment. As social VR creators, we will hugely benefit from their knowledge. Their years of experience and research are far more valuable than the answers we will get with a simple Google search.

So let’s reach out beyond the teeny bubble that is the VR industry and invite diverse thinkers and researchers to design with us!

Join us plz. Source

Introducing the Mindful Realities Make-athon

In mid-March, We Make Realities is hosting a day-long “make-athon” that will bring together cognitive researchers, field experts, and VR creators for a day to explore how we can build up positive social norms for virtual worlds (and explore alternatives to muting/blocking). The ideas and prototypes we produce will be open-sourced to the VR community, and some will be described in more detail on our Medium publication.

If you’re a company that wants to pioneer social VR, please consider sponsoring this event! We rely on sponsors to make this happen.

If you’re interested in mentoring or participating, please let us know!

If you’re interested in writing for our Medium publication (on topics like this one), please email us at

Let’s make VR awesome, together

VR is going to succeed if we tackle these big questions early on and invite voices beyond our industry to create with us. So let’s make it happen!

This is the first article for the We Make Realities publication; where the brains of cognitive researchers and VR creators merge together to make better virtual realities.

We Make Realities

Where the knowledge of researchers, psychologists, and VR creators merge together to create better experiences.

Eva Hoerth

Written by

Let’s talk VR, AR, psychology, and ethical emerging tech.

We Make Realities

Where the knowledge of researchers, psychologists, and VR creators merge together to create better experiences.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade