The transportive power of virtual reality has shown promise as a tool to ease pain, develop empathy, and even treat PTSD. But VR’s less therapeutic, more lucrative applications—gaming and entertainment—can turn into strange, traumatizing experience for women.
There I was shooting down zombies alongside another real-time player named BigBro442. The other players could hear me when I spoke, my voice the only indication of my femaleness. Otherwise, my avatar looked identical to them.
In between a wave of zombies and demons to shoot down, I was hanging out next to BigBro442, waiting for our next attack. Suddenly, BigBro442’s disembodied helmet faced me dead-on. His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest.
I must have laughed from the embarrassment and the ridiculousness of the situation. Women, after all, are supposed to be cool, and take any form of sexual harassment with a laugh. But I still told him to stop.
He didn’t stop, she explained, and instead his avatar chased Belamire’s around, making grabbing and pinching motions near her chest. “Emboldened, he even shoved his hand toward my virtual crotch and began rubbing,” she wrote.
Belamire was wearing the VR visor in her brother-in-law’s living room at the time, but said the attack felt as real to her as gropings she had experienced in real life twice before.
In response, she received incredulous remarks like this one:
The problem, which has long dogged the 2D gaming world, is all the more visceral in 3D. As Elle reported in June, in social VR games, in which players interact with real people as opposed to computer characters, women have become the target of trolls unleashing verbal attacks and violent, suggestive behavior. In studies investigating VR’s impact on the brain, players experienced a more intense sense of presence than other forms of media, allowing a person to feel they have actually been to another environment.
Jesse Fox, an Ohio State University communications professor who researches the real world implications of new media technologies, told The Guardian, that players who identify with their avatar and portray themselves in an “authentic manner” are bound to “feel violated.” “You are seeing it. It is appearing to happen to your own body. Those layers of lifelike experience are going to be more traumatizing in that moment,” she said.
The day that Oculus Rift was officially launched last spring, a game developer posted a story on JoySticks describing her frightening encounter in VR at an industry event with a man who didn’t realize she was a young woman and one of very few in the room. She said of the experience, “when a man turned to me in virtual reality and aggressively rubbed his character’s chest… his chest with his hands, while remarking over the voice chat, ‘Look at me! I’m rubbing my tits at you!,’ I froze. The only response I could muster was letting out a small, insincere ‘heh’ laugh.”
The maker of QuiVr responded to Belamire’s experience and the media attention that followed it by altering a key game function so that players are now able to make aggressors fade from the scene when they violate one’s personal space. The game maker also called for a universal “power move” in all VR games that would allow players to banish harassers. Even then, there’s the problem of non-social games being littered with violent acts against women and hyper-sexualized female stereotypes. And it’s bound to get worse as gamers flock to VR headsets during the holiday season.