Harassment in Social VR: Stories from Survey Respondents

Photo by Hammer & Tusk (Unsplash)

Earlier this year, I surveyed VR users to gain insight into their experiences and expectations of VR. Because I wanted to hear from users with substantial VR experience, I required that respondents use VR twice a month, or more, and that they utilized Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PSVR, or Microsoft Mixed Reality devices. This research was funded by PlutoVR and I’ve previously reported results on privacy and the desire to be social in VR.

When the survey results were first released, I reported on the prevalence of harassment in social VR. From sexual harassment to racist comments to violent threats, our respondents painted a picture of a space that is not safe for all users. To give you a clearer illustration of the harassment people are experiencing, I collected quotes from our respondents.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT

Sexual harassment was the most prevalent form of harassment reported by users. More than half of all people experienced — or witnessed — sexual harassment in social VR settings.

% of people reporting sexual harassment

HARASSMENT REPORTED BY WOMEN:

“I had someone physically stalk and block me everywhere I went.”

“I was once slapped in the face repeatedly by a man.”

“User described what he wanted to do to me sexually through a message.”

“Sexual gestures, grabbing my avatar in inappropriate ways.”

“The first time I used social VR, my avatar and voice were identifiable as female. Under the guise of showing me around, one of the first people I met took me to a bondage bedroom. He also kept complaining about my bubble, which I was glad to have.”

“A guy noticed my black female avatar and started asking me for a date in VR. Followed by making humping gesture in close proximity. ‘I like black women’ seemed to be his sell…”

“There can be weird guys that spend too much time talking to you and follow you in the environment trying to talk when you’ve already expressed disinterest.”

“Crouched down to look at a texture…and immediately experienced another avatar ‘thrusting’ in my face.”

HARASSMENT REPORTED BY MEN:

“Everyone was touching on my body…I felt awkward… and I’m a dude.”

“Immature people in game just coming by and faking masturbation or groping just to be ‘funny’”

“Someone…[was] continually being sexual and in my space.”

Sometimes survey respondents were not the actual target of the harassment, but they still saw it.

“I witnessed multiple instances of dudes being gross with female avatars.”

There appears to be a desire to intervene when witnessing harassment and guidelines for bystanders would be welcome. In at least one circumstance, a man tried to intervene when he saw harassment occur and instead he became the target.

“The two other guys started harassing her and saying LEWD and rude things, and when I asked them to leave her alone they started cussing me out.”

Sexual harassment is not unique to social VR. But in these newly immersive and embodied experiences, the harassment can feel that much more personal and uncomfortable. Unless social VR platforms find ways to protect their users from unwanted advances, many users will choose to walk away from multiplayer platforms.

RACIST AND HOMOPHOBIC COMMENTS

Racism and homophobia were common forms of discrimination reported in social VR. More than a third of users experienced or observed the slurring of non-white avatars and homosexual users.

% of people reporting racist or homophobic comments

“Racist statements because I’m black.”

“I was called homophobic slurs by multiple people after I mentioned I was gay.”

“Just having to put up with other players racism of sexual comments directed towards others…”

VIOLENT THREATS AND COMMENTS

Violent threats were the least common form of harassment reported, but troubling for the users who experienced it. Users experienced Anti-Semitism and xenophobia in particular.

% of people reporting violent threats or comments

“Guy from [country] kept saying how most of the world hates people like me, and how they put us to death in some countries.”

“[There was] Nazi imagery in a shared space.”

USERS AVOID SOCIAL VR DUE TO HARASSMENT

Interacting with strangers in social VR can be uncomfortable enough without the added fear of harassment. Many users avoid interactions with strangers in social VR, or social VR platforms altogether, due to the prevalence of harassment.

“I was taunted and told horrible things the first game… never launched the game again.”

“I am not very comfortable interacting with strangers in VR… I go out of my way to avoid interactions.”

“I avoid social VR because I’m afraid to encounter [harassment].”

These stories indicate that social VR does not always feel safe to its users. People have a desire to only spend time with friends or people that they already know. I believe that unless there are systemic and cultural changes to many social VR worlds, harassment (or just fear or harassment) will be an obstacle to growth of multiplayer platforms.

You can read the full report on my 600-person VR user survey here. It contains more info on my approach, survey respondents’ VR usage patterns, privacy preferences and full harassment statistics.

And if you have a story about being in a social VR space that you would like to share, you can anonymously fill out this survey and I will possibly include it in a future blog post.

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Culture, Behavior, and Virtual Reality @theextendedmind

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Jessica Outlaw

Jessica Outlaw

Culture, Behavior, and Virtual Reality @theextendedmind

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