If you’ve ever been online at any point ever, you have probably been called a nasty name by someone. On Twitter, it was probably an egg or someone with an anime avatar. On Facebook, it was probably your mum. On MySpace, you were probably alright because nobody actually spoke on MySpace. In VR, as in other online games where headsets are involved, the problem comes from angry dudes who take videogames far too seriously.
According to Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, this harassment issue - in VR, at least - could be solved by giving players avatars capable of displaying emotion. So, in Sweeney’s vision of the future, you call me a pleb (quite rightly) and my virtual avatar will get a sad face. After seeing my sad mug, you will then feel bad about calling me a pleb and head off to reflect on your life choices, never to harass anyone again.
“Both multiplayer games and online forums have this property of virtual anonymity,” explains Sweeney in a Verge interview. “Other people can’t really see you, they don’t really know who you are. And so the sort of social moderating mechanisms in real life, and your desire not to offend people around you, don’t really adjust. I think that’s the root of the toxic behaviour.
“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.”
Sweeney thinks the key is in humanising people when they’re online, leaving human empathy to pick up the slack. Personally, I prefer the solution offered by director of Crows Crows Crows, William Pugh: