Developer on VR sexual assault: 'My heart sank'

sexual assault vr

When developer Aaron Stanton first heard that a woman had been groped while playing his virtual reality game, his heart sank.

The woman, Jordan Belamire, was shooting zombies alongside strangers in QuiVr when another player virtually rubbed her chest and shoved his "hand" toward her virtual crotch.

"Our first response was, 'Let's make sure this never happens again,'" Stanton told CNNMoney.

Stanton reached out to me after I wrote about Belamire's experience on Monday.

I received many angry emails in response to my story. I was told I was a feminist who knew nothing about QuiVr; that it was impossible to assault someone in that particular game, or more generally, in the virtual world. I was more than curious to hear what Stanton had to say.

Stanton, whose day job is in software development, told me those attacks were "absolutely incorrect." What happened to Belamire (a pseudonym) was possible in QuiVr and in other virtual reality games too. It's up to developers to create controls to make players feel safe inside the world that they've brought to life, he said.

Related: She was sexually assaulted in VR

On Tuesday afternoon, Stanton and QuiVr creator Jonathan Schenker published an op-ed in Upload VR.

In it, they suggest that developers band together to create a universal "power gesture" to combat harassment in virtual reality, essentially a "safe word" in the form of a motion that would give the player special powers to protect themselves. "We need to offer tools that give players better controls, not simply better ways to hide."

The idea of a personal bubble is something that AltspaceVR, a VR chatroom, introduced. If users enable it, others in the virtual have to stay at least one foot away. QuiVr also has the feature but its developers think a standardized control across all VR is necessary.

Because video games are largely developed by men, harassment of the sort that Belamire experienced might not be top of mind in a game's design. Stanton said that's true of he and Schenker; while they'd given careful thought to the ways in which players might get in each others ways in the virtual world, they hadn't considered that players might be harassed.

"If VR has the power to have lasting positive impact because of that realism, the opposite has to be taken seriously as well," Stanton and Schenker wrote in their op-ed.

The benefits of virtual reality are frequently touted. At the WSJ Digital Conference in Laguna Beach on Tuesday, Sheryl Sandberg said Facebook thinks of it as "the ultimate empathy device."

Stanton agrees that "virtual reality is powerful."

"We do everything we possibly can to encourage that belief," he said. "But you can't have that kind of power and say that anytime something bad happens, it's not your responsibility."

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