Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney suggests that virtual reality gaming’s harassment problem can solved by making avatars more realistic. In a new interview, Sweeney says that making VR avatars that show “human emotional reactions” can “significantly” impact the issue.
Sweeney’s comments come not long after a author Jordan Belamire detailed her experience of sexual harassment in VR game QuiVR, leading the game’s developers to introduce a ‘superpower’ feature to combat the problem.
Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney on VR Harassment
Speaking to The Verge, Sweeney says that the “virtual anonymity” of “multiplayer games and online forums” is the “root of the toxic behavior.” As players cannot really see each other and “don’t really know who you are,” explains the Epic Games executive, “the sort of social moderating mechanisms in real life, and your desire not to offend people around you, don’t really adjust.”
Sweeney also outlines one possible solution to the VR harassment problem, saying that:
“Once your VR avatar really looks like you, and people can see you, and you can see them and their faces and emotions, I think all of the normal restraining mechanisms will kick in. 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.”
On whether harassment in VR is a “fundamental problem” or whether it’s a result of the technology not yet being advanced enough, Sweeney says that this is “one of the big burning questions of the day that nobody really knows the answer to” and that “as soon as you can actually see the human emotional reactions, that may change the equation really significantly.”
We don’t need more witnesses, we don’t need more real-time performance of pain, we don’t need more “data” — we need more ***justice***
— Radiatori Yanga (@radiatoryang) December 29, 2016
In response to Sweeney’s comments, several game developers and games industry figures have voiced their disagreement on social media, saying that introducing more realistic avatars will not solve the problem.
Robert Yang argues that “We don’t need more witnesses, we don’t need more real-time performance of pain, we don’t need more “data”,” and that we need more “justice” instead. Yang’s comments echo the issues that some had when QuiVR‘s developers introduced the anti-harassment ‘superpower,’ as many people said that they wanted comprehensive reporting features and punishments for harassers as well.
Kate Compton, a PhD candidate in computer science and Innes McKendrick, a programmer on No Man’s Sky, also stress that anonymity isn’t the cause of harassment. Speaking on the problem of harassment on social media, in 2015, sociologist Katherine Cross noted that the real problem is accountability not anonymity, as people can just ‘get away with it.’ The “toxicity problems would remain” even if people waved a magic wand” and removed anonymity, says Cross.
There are additional arguments too that making avatars more real, thus giving harassers are more realistic canvas to illicit a response from, would only encourage their behaviour and that it doesn’t address the real reason why so many people feel comfortable in harassing other players in the first place. Those who have been harassed in real life also note that the lack of anonymity and the real-life displays of discomfort have never stopped people from harassing others in the meatspace.
Although Sweeney’s proposed solution many not be entirely useful, many are hopeful that developers will continue to address the issue. The consensus is that devs should talk to those who have experienced harassment about how they can solve harassment in VR, implementing these suggestions to ensure that their attempts at tackling the problem are as effective as possible.