While I was at E3, Polygon published an article about a new, horrifying problem that to be honest, so far I haven’t even considered in my analysis of why VR has a bumpy road ahead, and that is that harassment in VR is likely to be way, way worse than in normal games. A game dev at GDC demonstrated the problem on an unprepared participant, and made things clear that harassment is a lot more brutal when people are reaching towards your crotch directly. Said the dev:
“It is intense, it is visceral [and] it triggers your fight or flight response,” he warned, his tone becoming more grave.
This is crucially important, but the only people I’ve seen the article treat this as a serious, grave issue are MMO experts, including Second Life chronicler James Wagner Au and Scott Jennings. Au is more skeptical, whereas Scott’s point of view mirrors mine – it’s definitely a solvable problem. The question is whether or not developers will decide to solve this problem before launching their products.
This didn’t stop some incredibly naive and short-sighted commentary.
Are people really pearl clutching over the possibility of “virtual harassment” in VR games? The technology isn’t even out yet. Get a grip.
— Ian Miles Cheong (@stillgray) March 18, 2016
Nope, not kidding, and it’s not pearl clutching. It’s time to get to work. This has the problem to be catastrophic for VR – at least for VR that involves connected experiences with strangers. Here’s the thing – games earn reputations, and so do platforms. And they earn that reputation right when they launch, usually, when stories of harassment break on the web. If this isn’t solved before the ‘technology is out’, it could result stunting the growth of VR for years.
To put it in stark terms, if you’re a mom, are you buying yourself or your daughter a VR unit after Time runs a ‘Rape in Cyberspace’ type story and Fox starts villifying it?
I’ve written before about how important that it was that Ultima Online changed the culture of the game by aggressively moving to ban assholes. This change directly is tied to the doubling of our subscription base. However, we were never able to change the perception of the market that was formed on day one that the game was a cesspool. If we didn’t have that baggage, we would have grown much, much faster. On SWTOR, we built the infrastructure, tools and call centers at launch – it cost us millions of dollars – but as such, our online reputation was never nearly as negative as UO’s (WoW followed a similar path).
All this led to another exchange that was equally face-palming.
— Rhéa (@ashelia) March 18, 2016
— Rhéa (@ashelia) March 18, 2016
This is a lot of ignorance about League of Legend’s challenges with harassment from someone who purports to be a producer for one of the most significant LOL fan sites. She seemed to think I was implying that League of Legends was not profitable before they started addressing harassment, and her other tweets imply that harassment has not had a significant impact on their bottom line. The former point is misconstruing my point, and the latter is directly counteracted by evidence from the numerous discussion points from Riot Games themselves.
The simple fact is that Riot Games has invested millions of dollars combating toxicity and harassment in their space. They have done multiple GDC speeches on their work (seriously, this talk is awesome, watch it), both describing the damage that harassment has done to the game, as well as how they’ve invented new technology, based on machine learning, in order to better police their work. Jeffrey Lin’s conclusion is very similar to the theory of Broken Windows – i.e. that their inability to address harassment fast enough resulted in the perception that harassment was the norm. Wired has covered these efforts multiple times. The investment into fighting harassment is real, its expensive, and in the case of League of Legends, it’s actually working!
But here’s what’s immediately relevant: despite the fact that League of Legends has clear data that shows that their world is far less toxic than it used to be based on their efforts, they cannot overcome the reputation they’ve already earned from their earliest days. There’s much less toxicity than their used to be, but you now have an inherent bias as a player – you expect to see toxicity, so when you see it now — even though it’s much rarer than it used to be — it confirms that bias, and developers are given very little appreciation for the massive cost and work that’s gone into fighting the problem. This leads to, for example, a community that is 90% male.
THIS is why it’s important that VR starts thinking and worrying about this problem now. If they wait until after people have a few rape-y encounters before they start taking this issue seriously, the damage will take far longer to undo.