More women are playing virtual reality games and some say they’ve been sexually harassed, stalked and have received violent threats from male players. They’re speaking out and calling for game developers to take action. Credit: Morgan Schweitzer for Reveal

At 27 years old, Renee Gittins is on top of her game.

The former biotech software engineer went from developing mini-games that helped diagnose childhood concussions to becoming CEO and creative director of the independent Seattle game studio Stumbling Cat and a board member of the International Game Developers Association.

As a consultant and speaker, Gittins is granted access to events featuring the latest virtual reality technologies. But one experience testing a multiplayer game in March 2016 at a limited access event that left an impression she can’t shake. The players were on two teams – two men on one and Gittins and another man on the other. Motion tracking allowed players to move their hands in the game. Gittins waved at the man embodied in a female avatar next to her.

Renee Gittins, an International Game Developers Association board member, lifts a virtual reality headset from her eyes. After experiencing a string of cyber harassment incidents throughout her life, Gittins says relying on state and federal laws to protect users is not ideal.
Credit: Courtesy of Renee Gittins Credit: Courtesy of Renee Gittins

“He replied, ‘Look! I’m rubbing my tits at you!’ Then he proceeded to rub his avatar’s chest, Gittins said. “It was unsettling. I felt like I walked in on locker room banter. That’s not behavior considered appropriate in real life, so I felt like something menacing was to come.”

This is the latest experience in a string of cyber harassment incidents throughout Gittins’ life.

The rise of graphics capabilities for mobile phone technology in the first decade of the 21st century gave developers a way to make VR portable, accessible and abundant. Introduced in 2014, the Google Cardboard head mount paved the way for more ubiquity, offering an affordable and simple tool to view and interact with VR experiences.

Many journalists and technologists have embraced virtual reality as an “empathy machine.” Its ability to place viewers in the midst of visceral experiences affords them a strong sense of presence unparalleled in gaming.

Viewers can stand in scenes alongside three displaced children from Ukraine, South Sudan and Lebanon in “The Displaced” or switch genders in“Perspective Chapter 1: The Party” to witness a sexual assault from both the male and female points of view.

Social VR platforms such as Rec Room, AltspaceVR and High Fidelity offer virtual forums that allow users to engage in social activities, including talking, playing games, conducting meetings and even hugging each other while embodied as avatars.

Yet, one looming problem in VR is that someone can invade your personal space from thousands of miles away in ways that feel far too real.

In a 2016 blog post, author Jordan Belamire shared her experience of being virtually groped while playing the SteamVR game “QuiVr.” Despite being embodied in a gender-neutral avatar, Belamire thinks her feminine voice enticed player BigBro442 to rub her avatar’s chest, follow her and ultimately grope her avatar’s crotch minutes after beginning the game.

She called his actions “unbridled misogyny that spawns from gaming anonymity.” Ten days later, BigBro442, who claims to live in California, changed his SteamVR profile name to Shadowraith. He blamed Belamire’s public post for the change, referring to her as a “subhuman female scumbag” and “wench” on the QuiVr discussion forum. He also complained that the game’s new “personal bubble” option “will no longer allow me to virtually molest people.”

Shared and cited by media outlets in the U.S. and beyond, the post raised troubling questions about the visceral nature of VR, its potential for sexual harassment and questions of accountability among developers.

After Belamire’s incident, QuiVr developer Jonathan Schenker responded in a post on Upload advocating for tools that could change the outcome of a player’s encounter “before it ended in a negative way.” But Schenker also stated he sees “no way to prevent it entirely so long as multiplayer experiences exist.”

Heightened focus on sexual harassment

Since last fall, the national conversation on sexual harassment and assault heightened due to allegations against prominent media figures,  including Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer. Earlier in 2017, two female employees of influential companies brought lawsuits against their employers that shook the VR industry.

Tannen Campbell, former vice president of strategic marketing and brand identity at Magic Leap, sued her former employers in February and Elizabeth Scott, former digital and social media director at Upload, sued that company in May.

Campbell’s suit accused Magic Leap of perpetuating a company culture deeply ingrained misogyny and gender discrimination. Magic Leap filed a response denying it engaged in any kind of discrimination, and in May, Campbell filed a notice of settlement, its terms confidential. In the Upload suit, Scott referenced “rampant sexual behavior and focus” in the office, saying it created “an unbearable environment,” including a “kink room” with a bed to encourage sexual encounters. Her suit also settled quietly.

Introduced at the 2017 Virtual Reality Developers Conference in San Francisco, a self-funded study conducted by behavioral scientist Jessica Outlaw analyzed the social VR experiences of 13 women ages 21 to 38 from Portland, Oregon. The study found that after 30 minutes of exposure to AltspaceVR or Rec Room, most participants reported feeling unsafe, had difficulty navigating the spaces and struggled with self-expression.

Outlaw says she self-funded the study after a company that observes significant on-platform harassment told her it didn’t see the value of conducting the research because it would deplete resources earmarked for engineering. While Outlaw acknowledged the sample size is low, she says she hopes her study will inspire developers to research equality and VR experiences.

A woman takes part in behavioral scientist Jessica Outlaw’s self-funded study analyzing the social VR experiences of 13 women ages 21 to 38. The study found that after 30 minutes of exposure to AltspaceVR or Rec Room, most participants reported feeling unsafe, had difficulty navigating the spaces and struggled with self-expression.
Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Outlaw Credit: Courtesy of Jessica Outlaw

In its 2017 online harassment survey, the Pew Research Center found 41 percent of Americans have been subjected to harassing behavior online, while 66 percent witnessed it. Regarding more severe forms such as physical threats, sexual harassment or stalking, nearly 18 percent of Americans have found themselves targets.
Gittins, the Stumbling Cat CEO, says she’s observed other female gamers receive death threats, recalling one incident in which the person being harassed was sent a picture of the door to her home.

Suzanne Leibrick, a VR developer and co-leader of ARVR Academy, says there is something magical about putting on a headset and going to another world, though at times, she thinks it can be easy to forget there is a person behind the avatar.

After spending over 100 hours playing “Hover Junkers,” a multiplayer VR game, she stopped participating when another player followed her repeatedly and made sexist comments. This was similar to an earlier uncomfortable experience of being followed, heckled and encircled by other avatars while appearing as a female avatar on AltspaceVR. Leibrick said it produced an uncomfortable sensation of being surrounded by a crowd. She says the occurrences are a frequent part of her VR social and gaming experiences.

“On many platforms, there are maybe three women in a room of 15 people,” Leibrick said. “I worry women trying VR for the first time will be harassed, take off their headset and never come back. I should not have to end my social or game experience just because someone is acting unruly.”

A history of VR abuse

One of the earliest instances of avatar defilement is detailed in Julian Dibbell’s 1993 Village Voice article “A Rape in Cyberspace.” Occurring in “LambdaMOO,” a virtual community founded in 1990, a user called Mr. Bungle used the voodoo doll he obtained to commit virtual rapes of female characters. A decade later, reports of avatar rapes began surfacing after Linden Lab’s virtual world “Second Life” launched in 2003.

Within that time frame, 12-year-old Gittins’ feminine voice attracted salacious comments in the multiplayer shooter game “Counter-Strike,” including, “How old are you? Are you hot?” and “What are you wearing?” The backlash caused her so much stress and pressure it drove her from the platform completely.

In 2007, while then-17-year-old Gittins was playing “World of Warcraft” as a druid avatar, hecklers wrote comments such as “ugly bitch”  and “scrawny nerd” in public chat areas on her YouTube and Reddit accounts. Gittins said the harassment escalated to death threats on her cellphone while she was a student at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California – an institution lauded for its concentration on math, engineering and the advancement of women in computer science. Gittins called the police department where her main harassers claimed to live but could not file a formal report because she didn’t know their names or other identifying information.

In 2009, she filed a complaint with Blizzard Entertainment, the game’s developer. Although Blizzard never disclosed what actions it took, she thinks her main harasser was banned from the forums at least temporarily after he posted a threat to find her in person and assault her at BlizzCon, the company’s video game convention.

“When they threatened me, my gut would drop,” Gittins said. “They told me they would find me in person and beat the shit out of me. If I had the knowledge I do today, I would have ensured (my complaint) was taken more seriously, but I, like many victims, wasn’t aware of my rights or how to approach the situation.”

The harassment discouraged her from participating in the “World of Warcraft” community. It persisted in random bouts on various internet platforms for nearly seven years even after she ceased from actively playing the game, causing her to live in fear.

Sameer Hinduja, a criminology and criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, says the anonymity a VR headset and avatar afford can be alluring to antagonists because it allows them to shed social norms for power and control.

“When the ‘Grand Theft Auto’ video game series was popular, players could abuse a prostitute on the streets,” Hinduja said. “Now in VR, we’ve seen virtual groping of the chest and groin area, masturbatory gestures using hand controllers, threats and degrading comments. Harassers take full advantage of victims by holding power over their experience. This power play is very attractive, especially if developers have not afforded the victim tools of defense.”

Who should provide accountability?

Because avatar rape and VR groping are neither physical in the sense that the harassee’s physical body is not being touched nor geographic since VR worlds are not recognized as places on a map, determining victim recourse can be confusing. VR platforms fall under cyberspace communication, touching on state and federal laws including the First Amendment, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and possibly criminal and civil statutes covering defamation, harassment, public disclosure of private facts and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

University of Miami School of Law professor Mary Anne Franks said that under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, online intermediaries that host or republish speech are protected against laws (apart from certain exceptions) that might otherwise hold them legally responsible for user behavior. Website owners are required to act only on serious criminal complaints such as child pornography or intellectual property claims.

VR Companies may find immunity under this provision if their users commit harassment. While most platforms self-regulate by posting community decency standards such as temporary or permanent account suspensions, it is up to site administrators to enforce these.

Victims of harassment also can sue perpetrators for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, public disclosure of private facts and even copyright violations if photos are involved and, depending on the case, if the victim knows the harasser’s real-world identity. These routes can be costly, however.

So far, how laws would adapt and apply to concepts such as photorealistic VR avatars is unknown. Despite the uncanny valley hypothesis, a theory postulating that people feel uneasy seeing lifelike humanoid objects, industry leaders predict avatars will become more intricate.

The ability to create 3-D-scanned photorealistic versions now exists through startups such as Uraniom. As Franks mentions in a recent article for the UC Davis Law Review, future threatening VR behaviors could include hacking into the account of a user and using his or her avatar, or creating an avatar resembling a victim to perform acts of defilement or violence against it. Franks says technological innovations should be subjected to testing that asks whether the product advances or undermines equality.

“We are nearing a situation where inputting a person’s body type with scary accuracy into scenarios where they can be raped, assaulted and even killed,” Franks said. “You’ll never know if the guy in the cubicle next to you or the guy sitting across from you on the train isn’t doing exactly that on his phone. There are ways to try to update our laws to protect users. We just need the political will.”

In recent years, a few initiatives have swept gaming’s legal landscape, such as New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s Operation: Game Over, which requires convicted sex offenders to register their online gaming profiles and accounts for voluntary purging by entertainment companies. But developers Leibrick and Gittins say relying predominantly on state and federal laws to protect users is not ideal. They argue that responsibility lies with developers because social conventions in VR, such as introducing yourself to a stranger or greeting friends, can be misunderstood.

“Sticking a controller in the crotch of someone’s avatar is seen as funny to some, but in reality,  if I tried to do that in a coffee shop, I could be arrested, possibly even charged with assault,” Leibrick said. “The worst that can happen on a platform is a person will be banned, flagged or muted. We should program in social conventions as much as possible.”

The 2017 Pew online harassment survey revealed that 94 percent of U.S. adults have some degree of familiarity with online harassment and that 79 percent believe online companies and platforms should help prevent and alleviate it.

Katie Kelly, senior program manager at Microsoft and head of engagement at AltspaceVR, which Microsoft acquired, says the company continues to make improvements for better social interaction, offering interest gatherings from LGBT meetups, talk shows and book clubs to Campfire, where avatars can hang out.

After an influx of harassment complaints in March and April 2016 that coincided with the availability of new VR headsets, the company introduced more user control tools in July 2016, including a moderator, “ignore” feature, private events, personal space bubble, blocking feature and 24/7 customer support.

“Our hope is in AltspaceVR, you can meet people that you want to be around,” Kelly said. “You’ll feel like you have a living, breathing person in front of you and will not act like you would on forums where people use their anonymity to behave badly. We try to come off not as a game, but as a platform where different people can find value in virtual social interaction.”

Gittins hopes developers continue to improve harassment prevention tools. She also recommends they create a database to track violators from popular VR social and gaming environments. After years of enduring threats and crude behavior, she’s built up a tolerance, but she says no one should have to do that. While the threatening phone calls have dissipated, she wonders whether they will return.

“Who’s to say it’s over?” Gittins said. “For all I know,  they could come back.”

Jessica Buchleitner is the author of the 50 Women anthology series — two books chronicling stories of perseverance told by 50 women from 30 countries. More recently she co-authored Stories from Girls and Women of Mogadishu featuring accounts told by women and girls building their lives in post civil war Mogadishu, Somalia. As a budding technologist, she’s exploring the application of augmented and virtual reality, design thinking and use of drones in journalism and storytelling.