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Virtual Reality Assault and Developer Responsibilities

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Offline kat

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With news of an alleged "**** assault"[1] taking place in a virtual reality game[2] comes a whole host of questions largely relating to the way players are able to control their in-game experiences and what they can do when that goes South for the Winter. It's also pertinent to ask about culpability; just who can be held to book for the behaviour of others. For game-makers and developers, if they are to be liable, how does the threat of legal action, of being sued or prosecuted, affect the individual, independent and smaller studios that don't typically have access to the same level of legal protections afford larger studios. What do they need to do to protect themselves[3].

Fortunately, at least for now, game-makers being prosecuted over the actions of others is still ordinarily an unlikely scenario, so traditional contractual and legal protections still prevail in that regard[4]. However, the 'cyber assault' incident referenced above brings to light a tangential issue that relates to an increased likelihood of liability and prosecution; with this new influx of initiates to VR and gaming in general, a self-styled group of non-traditional, non-self-identifying-as-gamers gamers, comes a different perspective the industry isn't really geared up to deal with, a world-view based entirely on subjectivism, an environment of personal politics where the individuals outlook defines the most virtual of realities; if they feel slighted, they are slighted[5], and will be more likely to seek remedy.

It's crucial developers and game-makers understand the paradigm shift this new crop of users bring with them; they are not necessarily playing games to escape real life, as has more or less been the traditional modus operandi for decades[6], they want games to reflect it, augment it, so bring to the medium the subjectively interpretive perspective of not being a traditional gamer; games must now conform to the individual, played by their rules not those presented. Games, and entertainment more broadly, are idealised extensions of their "lived experiences", a nouveau facile approach to the exploration of self as individual, their thoughts and ideas defined though a set of entirely personalised sensibilities others are often coerced into accommodating else an assault on their person has been made[7].

These new rules, underpinned as they often are by a broad spectra of concerns revolving around "social justice" that often has the individual defined by seemingly arbitrary considerations[7], is never wrong because they speak to the individual components of person-hood, each element of which is just as important as the greater whole, denial of one is to deny all, the whole person, resulting in an 'injustice' that's corrected by affording the aggrieved the ability to speak to power[8], the game developer, who typically then find themselves in the position of capitulation, rather than compromise, else run the risk of targeted harassment, where the most vitriolic and vindictive schemes of public shaming is often tolerated and excused[9].

The upshot of this for developers means being cognisant that offense can always be taken no matter how hard the efforts to avoid giving it ("offense is taken, not given"), so unless the concerns raised seem objectively reasonable[10], it's best to politely stick to the business/development road map/plan of action and thank the person for their comment. Should the grievance be sufficiently clear or aggravating the person, encourage them to seeking legal council or contact the appropriate authorities, with full cooperation to the extent allowed by law of course.

Additional Resources
- Tips for dealing with Abuse & Harassment Online
- Keeping kids safe; do more...
- ESA: Essential facts about the games industry 2016
- "Freedom of speech ends where threats abound"
- Developers and self, voluntary, censorship
- The dark side of diversity: "positive discrimination" (reverse discrimination)

[1] although much news coverage claims the incident was a "**** assault", a majority of news outlets using those very words in their titles and headlines (c.700,000 hits to Google), the author of the original blog-post at the centre of the controversy makes no such claim directly; the use "****" and "assault" is not concurrent, the incident is described as an "assault" that had a "****" component (cf. [2] & [3] below).

[2] the alleged incident occurred in QuiVr, a virtual reality "...Archery Castle Defense game for the HTC Vive". Players are displayed as a pair of disembodied hands with a bow in one, and a medieval style helmet approximately where the players head would otherwise be. Beyond these UI elements, for all intents and purposes the players avatar is invisible and able to freely interact with anything within reach (at the time of the incident which has since been changed by the games development team) - note: from the perspective of game development its not clear whether the game uses an underlying structure that's simply rendered invisible to the player, perhaps there for game-play purposes (rudimentary collision), or that nothing is shown because nothing is pulled in for use.

[3] developers need general protections against simple comment trolling to civil or criminal prosecution, all of which may or may not be the consequence of something caused by the game (e.g., seizure caused by rapidly flashing light), or a player interaction over which the game-maker has no control. The alleged virtual assault is a broad example of the latter, the result of an interaction between players the games designer had no control over nor anticipated, but was facilitated by the mechanics of the game, i.e., avatar hands being able to grasp at anything within reach, including the vacant space a torso would otherwise be if in-game characters had them. Whilst not an issue unique to VR, or indeed this generation of it, how then does User subjectivism square away with other types of unwanted gameplay, if a player is assailed by more enemies than expected, should that too constitute an assault because the event was unwelcome.

And herein lies the problem, from an interpretive stand-point, and the way the game works, its not entirely clear if the other player was intentionally trying to grab at the woman's avatar, or the bow she was holding, or some other element of the invisible player. In addition aside from the author of the incident laughingly exclaiming "no" to the player alleged to have assaulted her, and likely inadvertently egging them on in the process, there appears to have been no indication anyone other than herself was interpreting the incident as an assault instead of the funny event it appeared to have been by the way she was responding (although the blog post explains where she was touched, she does not clarify if she made those concerns known to the two people physically in the room with her, also laughing along as the incident transpired).

This is not to negate the incident or its effects, rather it highlights the problems developers face with a Users highly subjective interpretations of events, and the players own limitations in not knowing how something works and behavioural responses in not making their feelings immediately known and/or taking immediate action themselves to remedy the situation, e.g., taking the helmet off the moment it became clear what was going on rather than "running away" and in doing so allowing more time for the event to escalate. On this point, had the individual removed the helmet would it still be assault if the assailant continued despite the User no longer interfacing with the game. To what extent does the User have agency in VR or any game for that matter, and how long does it persist, if at all.

[4] game developers have been protected to a large extent through the contractual and legal obligations afforded by the "use = consent" principle; terms are considered binding, having hold or being agreeable between parties simply by a persons use, or continued use, of a device/s, app/s or software etc., tacit or implied consent in other words (beyond the initial "yes" upon account creation). The new breed of gamers however, bring with them the desire for "active consent"; instead of the users 'granting' consent through use, the principle is inverted such that consent now has to be expressly requested of the User (and to the extent they not obliged to acquiesces whilst simultaneously requiring providers ask - "no consent is not consent"). In essence once the VR headset is donned the User requires the developer ask if that's OK to continue - "press 'OK' to continue".

These new rules of engagement upset the historical "consent relationship", one more-or-less based upon mutual agreement and responsibility. Instead Users are now able to employ rationale based on a framework that essentially absolve themselves of all culpability through the expectation all consequence be subsumed by another party, the developer, whilst simultaneously demanding their agency and person-hood be recognised and acknowledged, be the impetus for preferential treatment based on arbitrary characteristics, while simultaneously insisting on enjoying all the benefits of the gaming experience available to everyone else.

Or to use an analogy, the picture this present developers is one within which a person stuffs their face with cake, eats other peoples cake, eats any remaining cake not yet taken, then blaming the host for there being too much cake, their eating it all, and their passing out due to a sugar overdose. In these instances hosting less cake, next time, doesn't solve the problem, they'll simply shove whatever cake is available into their faces regardless. Rinse and repeat until there is no cake, or cake is no longer provided due to their remonstrations, at which point they will complain there is no cake, which will be taken as an affront, insult, or some other fictional grievance, while demanding cake be provided, next time.

[5] holding open a door for most would be considered a courtesy one person performs for another because the two individuals may be close enough for the door being held open aiding the passage of both through to the other side. This same act of consideration can also be interpreted as a slight or offense to some whose personal politics or world view sees the incident as an act of oppression or intolerance, that the person holding the door open is exercising privilege and power over the other. The act is not a courtesy or kindness but meant to demean and belittle.

[6] much like other forms of entertainment, games have traditionally been considered an 'escape' from the pressures of life, some research indicates they may even be of benefit beyond being a time-sink (cf. Pew Research Center: Gaming and Gamers; The Hitman Study. Violent Video Game Exposure Effects on Aggressive Behavior, Hostile Feelings, and Depression (alt); The Science of Gamer Motivation etc.).

[7] the underlying framework bolstering this new outlook is "intersectionality", the unfalsifiable notion that a "white, CIS-gendered, male" (person born 'white' and 'male') has great "privilege" and "power" relative to a "black, non-binary" individual simply by virtue of being "white", "CIS" and "male". It speaks nothing to the persons character, their deeds or manifest accomplishments, which are often negated as being different forms of "privilege" and "oppression", instead only to arbitrary traits the person may or may ascribe to or may or may not have been born with or have control over. It is used to pre-excuse bad behaviour and pre-define interpersonal relationships, typically turns anyone in disagreement into an "agent of patriarchal oppression", and exists as it does today largely due to taking advantage of the "protected characteristics" discrimination laws, and societies broader intolerance of genuine social injustice and inequalities.

[8] the individuals ability to "speak to power" is a fundamental credo often found at the heart of the subjective "intersectional" world view and "social justice" in general. Its often used as justification for the most appallingly vicious and vitriolic speech and behaviour others, typically targets, are often accused of.

[9] one of the broader consequences of #gamergate was the revelation that harassment and abuse isn't a one-sided affair, nor gendered - some 50% of women engage in theharassment and abuse of others online (ostensibly through social media). So whilst 'gators' action were/are universally vilified in the press and across social media, 'sjw' abuse was/is universally praised, tolerated and supported by a network of enablers often populated by the same press and social media personalities castigating anyone even loosely connected to what was/is going on. This is where the intersectionality comes in to play, by 'projecting' a broad-sweeping victim narrative fueled by arbitrary individualistic traits for which offense can be easily taken but poorly defended against, abuse without consequence is afforded the faux victim under the guise they are speaking to power, fighting back, whether there is an objectively legitimate claim for such action or not. Abuse is abuse no matter the reason or rationale.

[10] in the alleged **** assault referenced above the developers addressed the issue by creating a bubble around the player (cf. #2 above). Other solutions might include;
- denying avatar inaction unless express permission is granted, or players know each other.
- creating a 'lock-down' zone that disables actions when entered.
- a direction based denial system to prevent weapons being fired at a person.
- an 'emergency exit' or 'eject, eject, eject' button that instantly removes the player from the game/level.
- as well as user reporting systems where incidents can be sent to 'staff' for a response.