Last week, I talked about an interesting talk at GDC about Women, Harassment and VR. Some commenters had some choice sentiments about the nature of this experiment. Elizabeth Sampat had some choice words on the subject:
None of this is consensual: anyone who thinks that harassment isn’t affecting if you know it’s coming obviously has never been harassed before. Women don’t have some magical “sensitivity gene” that makes them more succeptible to harassment than anyone else, and the fact that you know you’re about to be harassed doesn’t make it any less powerful or any more okay. Harassing an unsuspecting woman and calling it an experiment is like holding up a bank, getting away with the money and then calling it performance art. The harm has been done, the boundaries have been violated, and no one has given consent.
None of this is news: VR stands for VIRTUAL REALITY. There’s a game about tightrope-walking storeys above the ground, and video of people playing this game and of their abject fear already exists. It’s easy to extrapolate from all of these similar experiments in the medium that VR harassment would create the same autonomic responses as real-world harassment! A man is being applauded for discovering that women don’t like their personal space invaded, being shown phallic objects, or having their bodies touched without consent. How is that novel? How is that news?
None of this is brave: What a cowardly thing, to put yourself in the shoes of the abuser. How I would have loved a talk about how Harris designed a VR prototype in which you were a woman getting harassed on a San Francisco sidewalk or NYC subway. How brave and powerful it would have been to create an opt-in experience where people in positions of power could finally learn what it was like to feel small and afraid. What an innovative experiment that could have been! That’s a talk I would have liked to see. How boring and predictable it is to replicate centuries-old power structures, use an unwitting woman as your bait, and gather applause and acclaim. How sad it is to see from the company that made Papa y Yo.
I did not comment on this aspect of the test because, frankly, I don’t have enough information about his experiment – the Polygon article says that she was ‘unsuspecting’, but not having been to the talk, I’ve no idea HOW unsuspecting. Did she sign a consent form? Did she have a rough idea of what was going on? I simply don’t know, and I haven’t found anyplace that discusses those possibilities.
Even if consent were given, history is full of social experiments that were incredibly useful to understanding human nature, and yet highly unethical and likely would earn utter condemnation if run today. The Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgrim Obedience Experiments are both fundamentally important and useful studies, even if horrific in retrospect. So while I do think this little experiment was probably prone to many of the complaints Elizabeth and other critics raised up, I do think the questions are vitally important to the science of Virtual Reality, and that researchers would be well-advised to find better ways to study this field, and figure out ways to educate the games industry about what I suspect would be their horrifying conclusions.