Online harassment has been a common thread throughout 2016, and VR sadly isn’t a stranger to it. But the CEO of Epic Games thinks the tech will actually help combat harassment going forward.
Industry legend Tim Sweeney said as much in a recent interview with The Verge. Talking about the issues with online harassment, he pointed towards “virtual anonymity” as a key factor in removing the “social moderating mechanisms” that people have in real life. “I think that’s the root of the toxic behavior,” he said.
Right now, social VR experiences still have that anonymity in place, as the avatars we make in experiences like AltSpaceVR and even Oculus’ new avatars system don’t look anything like the real us. Sweeney thinks that as we progress with VR avatars, the “normal restraining mechanisms will kick in” and we’ll start to see less harassment. “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.”
VR harassment came into the conversation earlier this year when author Jordan Belamire wrote about her experience being sexually harassed within VR. The developer of the game in question then wrote about dealing with the concept.
But Sweeney thinks the situation might solve itself. He described VR as “something that’s humanizing” compared to forums and current multiplayer games that mask our true identities. “But I think we also have to consider that with VR, the experiences may be so intimate that you will choose instead of playing with random strangers on the internet to only play with people you know,” he said. Certainly we can already see the effects of this in games like Werewolves Within [Review: 7.5/10], which we recommend playing with friends rather than strangers.
Sweeney concluded by reinforcing his belief that “as soon as you can actually see the human emotional reactions,” people might change their tone.
We can only hope that Sweeney is right in this case. Recreating perfect virtual humans that are having social VR interactions indistinguishable from real life ones may be key to putting a stop to online harassment going forward.