Virtual reality has a host of problems that have stopped it from becoming a mass form of entertainment. Besides the fact that it’s far too expensive and there’s not enough must-view content, the user experience requires that you go it alone, putting on a headset and shutting off the rest of the world. An emerging group of applications for high-end VR headsets, like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, offer something new: the chance to be social in VR, exploring virtual worlds with both friends and strangers.
But these platforms, which resemble the forums and chatrooms of the early internet, have a big problem: sexual harassment.
A new study conducted by the Portland-based research group The Extended Mind shows that almost 50% of women who engage in social virtual reality spaces on a regular basis experience sexual harassment–a number that’s on par with 2016 percentages of women who experience harassment at work. Far from being a utopian technology, free from social norms, VR is just as sexist as meatspace.
“I kept running into people who had the attitude that VR is going to be different, everything is going to be brand-new,” says behavioral scientist Jessica Outlaw, who founded The Extended Mind after working in user experience research at Nike. “I just think that’s completely wrong. I think people are people. They’re going to bring in their existing associations.”
But according to Outlaw, who conducted this survey-based study of 600 men and women as well as a 2017 qualitative study with 13 women, the VR industry has had problems recognizing that its utopian ideal might not be true for everyone–and that it needs to take steps to ensure that women feel comfortable on emerging platforms. “Last year, before the #MeToo movement, I had men who work in VR tell me, we just need to bring in the exact same social norms that we have in real life,” Outlaw says. “There was absolutely no recognition that existing social norms and modes of behavior in real life are problematic.”
But Outlaw’s research has shown that social norms, particularly around gender and sexual harassment, do worm their way into virtual spaces. In her study of 13 women last year, in which Outlaw introduced women to social VR experiences and then interviewed them about their reactions, she found that the participants tended to mimic behaviors in VR that women use in real life to avoid street harassment. “They didn’t want to speak, purposely staying silent so no one would know they were female, they walked along the perimeter, they dressed in ways to not attract attention,” Outlaw says.
Outlaw introduced the women to three different social VR spaces: Facebook Spaces, AltSpace VR (which is owned by Microsoft), and Rec Room. Her 13 participants had no issues with harassment in Facebook Spaces, and Outlaw suspects this is because they were only interacting with friends. But several of the women experienced harassment in AltSpace: one was hit with a stick, one was followed by a male avatar who repeatedly introduced himself, one encountered phallic graffiti, and one had a male avatar catcall her. AltSpace has several features to prevent harassment, including muting, blocking, reporting abuse, and even setting your privacy so that you only hang out with people you know virtually. Outlaw did not explicitly introduce subjects to these features–the study participants explored the app without guidance, though Outlaw says she was available to answer any questions. Subjects only asked about how to move within the space, not how to protect themselves using muting, blocking, or AltSpace’s other features. While AltSpace has a menu icon that is always visible to users, Outlaw believes that the app puts the onus on users to figure out all its features.
The last social space Outlaw introduced the women to, called Rec Room, was also conducive to harassment, though the company has since changed its design. Headlines have described it as “the most fun you can have in VR” and VR’s “killer app.” The virtual space resembles the YMCA, where participants can play games like dodgeball and paintball in a group. When users first enter the app, they start in a dorm room, where they design an avatar and go through a tutorial. In Outlaw’s study, users then entered a locker room that everyone shares–a space that’s already fraught with misogyny for many women, given the acceptance of demeaning language under the guise of “locker room talk.” Outlaw recalls one of her own experiences entering the space, when the only other woman in the room said to her, “Thank god you’re a girl.”
“How would you feel if you walked into a bar, and the only other woman there said, ‘thank god you’re here?'” she asks. One month after Outlaw’s study participants gave feedback on Rec Room, the company changed the design of its spaces. Since then, the community space has resembled a lobby-type rec center.
In contrast to the women participants’ experiences, many men have told Outlaw that Rec Room is their favorite social VR space. Ultimately, most of the women in the study were uncomfortable in social VR. Only one said she would be interested in purchasing her own hardware.
Outlaw’s new 600-person survey is meant as a follow-up to the qualitative study, with most respondents coming from her personal network and the VR industry. Each person who answered Outlaw’s open call for survey responses uses one of the high-end VR headsets at least two times per month, with 70% of the respondents being men and 30% being women. Forty-nine percent of the female respondents and 36% of the male respondents reported being sexually harassed. One woman said she was slapped repeatedly by a man; another had her avatar humped; another had a male user send her sexually explicit messages.
And it wasn’t just sexual harassment. Many participants experienced racist, homophobic, or violent comments–though not at quite the same level as sexual ones.
Outlaw has a few suggestions for how VR developers can mitigate the presence of harassment online. After all, they have tools at their disposable that people can’t necessarily use IRL: Developers can give users the ability to block or mute particular users or institute personal space bubbles to prevent others from getting too close.
Most importantly, Outlaw believes that privacy should be the default. That means that when a person initially begins exploring a space, they should be able to do so privately. Right now, many of the spaces thrust new players in without much orientation or even basic navigation, and certainly don’t give them the option to explore a space without revealing themselves–or exposing themselves to harassment.
She also believes that each community must develop social norms that help to communicate what’s acceptable and what’s not. In an ideal situation, users of platforms like Rec Room police each other, letting newcomers know that it’s not okay to do things like catcall or make crude gestures, even in an virtual environment.
And finally, Outlaw believes the designers of these nascent platforms need to simply talk to a diverse set of users–because right now, most aren’t designed with everyone in mind. In Rec Room, the primary way to access the menu is to look at your wrist, something that new users are likely to forget. In an introductory tutorial, users are shown how to access the menu and a “stop” gesture that enables them to block or mute other people who are harassing them. But Outlaw believes that requiring users to remember gestures puts too much of a burden on them. Her research has shown that confusing, unintuitive navigability has a serious averse affect on new users’ experiences. If that doesn’t change, she says, the UX is “going to keep bringing in people who are already experts.”
Predictably, some participants in the study doubted the existence of harassment at all. One respondent said, “It’s pixels on a screen . . . if you’re unable to . . . use a mute feature or believe that other players need to respect your ‘personal boundaries,’ you shouldn’t participate in online gaming.”
Besides these platforms’ design flaws, it’s that kind of attitude that does keep women out. And there’s a strong business imperative here. “Across the VR industry, hardware sales are pretty lackluster,” Outlaw says. “If you were making an app and were worried that not enough people will own the hardware to use their app, should you be making an app only targeted to half the population?”
Some companies are trying to provide tools that make being in VR safer–even if it’s just a side effect. Pluto VR, the startup that commissioned Outlaw to do the study, is basically a chat service for VR that allows you talk to friends while doing different virtual experiences. It’s clever of the company to show the prevalence of harassment on other platforms, positioning itself as the answer.
But regardless, Outlaw’s research shows just how far virtual reality has to go if it ever wants to reach a broader audience outside its niche community.
Ultimately, none of the basic fixes Outlaw proposes will make much of a difference if people continue to think it’s okay to demean others. “I think that for harassment to end in VR, there needs to be a fundamental shift in harassment in our dominant culture,” she says. Recognizing VR’s harassment problem is only the first step in a much longer struggle.
This article has been updated with more details about the study’s timeline, AltSpace, and Rec Room’s features.