Sexual assaults in virtual reality: the dark side emerges

Earlier this week Swedish superstars ABBA announced a new “virtual and live experience” for 2018, billed as “a ground breaking venture that will utilise the very latest in digital and virtual reality technology.”

The week before, it was announced that UK hospitals are turning to simulation and virtual reality to train healthcare professionals in medical procedures.

And earlier in the month scientists allowed people to experience climate change and environmental issues through the eyes of a head set.

Indeed, the world, or universe, of mainstream virtual reality is practically upon us, here to entertain, educate, help and inspire.

But like all great tech, the darker side of humanity could just be a click away.

Writing for Medium under a pseudonym (article now deleted), gamer Jordan Belamire reported that she was groped while playing a virtual reality game.

That might not sound too upsetting, being that virtual reality is just that – virtual.

But it is, just as electronic hate mail or threatening YouTube videos are upsetting to the individuals that they are aimed towards.

While playing the zombie shooter game QuiVr, Belamire was approached by another player named BigBro442, who began to rub her virtual breasts and groin — despite her pleas for him to stop.

Balmire wrote: “Of course, you’re not physically being touched, just like you’re not actually one hundred feet off the ground, but it’s still scary as hell.”

While QuiVr developers backed her up, saying that, “no one should be able to treat another player like the author had been treated again,” Twitter users also weighed in on the subject.

Many assumed that the attack wasn’t possible or legitimate because they thought that it didn’t happen, being that it occurred in a virtual reality.

Others told Belamire that she should have laughed the whole thing off.

Since Belamire’s article went live many more women have come forward to say that they too have been groped in virtual reality.

Engadget has even gone as far as declaring that the game Dead or Alive in VR mode is “basically sexual assault, the game.

Indeed, according to the magazine, the game supports features that lets players ogle women while one game mode features active harassment, where a player may continually touch a woman who is verbally protesting.

Is the worst of gaming community misogyny leaking into the VR world?

For the most part, when used correctly, online anonymity is great, but it also allows people to delve into darker and more secretive aspects of their personalities.

In 2015 Troy Deskins at the Eastern Michigan University researched the effects of video games in relation to sexist attitudes in males.

Deskins hypothesised that because many video games make use of negative stereotypes, particularly in relation to gender, people who play video or computer games might be more likely to accept the mistreatment of women.

Participants were asked to rate how offensive they found screen shots of sexist chat messages sent to female gamers.

Analysis showed that those who play violent video games, and scored high on benevolent sexism, rated the messages as more amusing than others.

Another study published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, found that sexism in the male-dominated environment of Halo had more do with the skill of players and their personal status within the game — which could have similar implications across other computer games.

Michael Kasumovic, a professor at the University of New South Wales said, “It’s the fear of losing to a woman that kind of irks a lot of men,” and that “as a consequence, they lash out in an attempt to remove women from the competitive playing field.”

So as WIRED aptly sums it up, “gamers who troll women are literally losers.”

Perhaps it is inevitable that the deluge of human scum from traditional gaming will eventually leak its way into the VR boom.

But hopefully, while there are only a handful of games out there, and while the technology is only really still in its infancy, developers can install protocols to stop sexual harassment in VR games.

As Aaron Stanton said, while speaking to CNN money, “We need to offer tools that give players better controls, not simply better ways to hide.”

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