Example of realistic 2006 Second Life avatar targeted by constant racist harassment
This in-depth interview with virtual reality pioneer and Epic CEO Tim Sweeney showed up just before the New Year, and it touched on the problem of user-to-user harassment that the new wave of VR developers are barely starting to deal with. Sweeney's solution made my jaw drop, because it's indicative of just how much the VR industry still has to learn:
Well, both multiplayer games and online forums have this property of virtual anonymity. Other people can’t really see you, they don’t really know who you are. And so the sort of social moderating mechanisms in real life, and your desire not to offend people around you, don’t really adjust. I think that’s the root of the toxic behavior. Once your VR avatar really looks like you, and people can see you, and you can see them and their faces and emotions, I think all of the normal restraining mechanisms will kick in. If you insult somebody and you see that they have a sad look on their face, then you’re going to feel really, really bad about that. And you’re probably not going to do it again.
The first part is right, as far as it goes -- yes, anonymity is a key culprit to online harassment -- but the second is highly, highly questionable. For one thing, avatar realism in itself doesn't curb abuse, nor does realistic expressions of emotion. Both have existed in Second Life for over 12 years, but so has harassment. (Linden Lab vet and Facebook VR lead Jim Purbrick can probably back me up here.)
For another reason -- and if you're a woman or person of color reading this, chances are this objection is brutally obvious to you already -- in the real world, abuse and harassment happens all the time, despite or even because of how it makes the victim react.
I put this point to Sweeney on Twitter, asking him why he thinks realistic avatars will curb abuse when face to face abuse in real life is so common. His answer was instructive:
If I understand that right, he's arguing that realistic VR avatars will bring abuse rates in online settings closer to what they are in real life. Which I got to say, is not that great a goal:
USA: Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates conducted a nationally representative telephone survey of 612 adult women between June 17 and June 19, 2000. From this survey, they found that almost all women had experienced street harassment: 87 percent of American women between the ages of 18-64 had been harassed by a male stranger; and over one half of them experienced “extreme” harassment including being touched, grabbed, rubbed, brushed or followed by a strange man on the street or other public place. Shattering the myth that street harassment is an urban problem, the survey found that women in all areas experienced it: 90 percent in rural areas, 88 percent in suburban areas, and 87 percent in urban areas. Sadly, 84 percent of women “consider changing their behavior to avoid street harassment.”
This despite -- or again, because -- their harassers can see their victim's faces and emotions. So again, this seems another case where cultural bias is blinding the VR industry to the problems they face.
Earlier in the interview, ironically enough, Sweeney predicted we will "eventually reach a billion users with VR and augmented reality." But unless he's OK with those billion users being straight white men, the industry won't reach those numbers unless its culture starts to change.