The future of VR systems may be uncertain, but as consumer-grade devices come down in price, we're probably going to see a lot of apps that go beyond gaming. Companies are betting that VR (and, one day, AR) will become the new interface for what we're already doing on Web and mobile: shopping, working, and socializing. Imagine Twitter in VR: thousands of trolls and idiots, screaming into your face forever. Sounds like the apocalypse, right? Maybe. Developers are already thinking about how to prevent abuse from ruining their VR spaces. But first, they have to grapple with the changing face of trolling in VR.
People troll each other online for a million reasons, but one of the most obvious is that it's simply much easier to say cruel things to someone who isn't physically in front of you. Countless psychological studies have shown that people in real life have a difficult time saying negative things to each other's faces. And this could actually be good news in the fight against online abuse in VR. Once VR social spaces are good enough to create decent facsimiles of our faces, engaging in mass mobbing or trolling may become harder. There's a huge difference between sending a nasty tweet and speaking the same words to somebody's face.
The question is, will our psychological blocks against insulting people to their faces actually kick in when we're in a virtual space? Preliminary evidence from early social VR spaces suggests the answer is complicated.
The VR creepers
Rec Room is a half-game, half-social space for Vive and Oculus Touch, and it already has problems with harassment. A man trying to play charades captured video of a now-notorious player called Handibot groping him. Players are divided on whether this is scary or funny. Meanwhile, less ambiguous forms of harassment have cropped up: in the Steam forums for Rec Room, a player reports being sexually harassed three times. They want to know how to block other players.
Meanwhile, Jordan Belamire's account of being sexually harassed in the game QuiVr made headlines late last year. Belamire had just gotten the hang of using the Vive to play the shoot-zombies-with-arrows game, when a guy decided to turn her into his prey: "Even when I turned away from him, he chased me around, making grabbing and pinching motions near my chest. Emboldened, he even shoved his hand toward my virtual crotch and began rubbing." Admittedly, the avatars in these games look like cartoons. We still have a long way to go before talking to another person in VR feels the same as talking to a person IRL.
Ars' intrepid VR critic Sam Machkovech walks us through Rec Room and shows us how to fend off creepers using the slightly overcomplicated interface.
Still, it's easy to see that abuse in VR will get creepy. To make friends and test out the UX, Ars' own Sam Machkovech did a tour of Rec Room. What he discovered (see the video above) was how hard it is to keep people from getting in your face. Partly that's because the interface is still wonky and everyone is a newbie. But it's also because companies making social VR apps are trying to deal with abuse the same way most social apps on the Web do—which is to say, they don't make it simple, and often the tools to stop abuse are buried several menus deep.
Ghosting, blocking, muting
Rec Room has a series of incredibly complicated steps you can take to "ghost" another player. "Ghosting" basically involves shutting out the offender for the length of a play session (you have to re-ghost them again next time you log in). You can also lower other players' voices and report players who violate the Rec Room code of conduct, listed at the bottom of the app description in the Steam store. Another VR social app, vTime, allows players to block each other. These solutions sound a bit like the bully blocking setup that the main character uses in Ernest Cline's popular sci-fi novel Ready Player One, in which everybody attends high school in VR. Whenever somebody starts taunting our hero, he just ghosts them and continues strolling to his locker.
But, of course, abuse in VR isn't the same thing as abuse on Facebook, and blocking or ghosting may not be enough. That's why Rec Room has a "personal space boundaries" setting that allows you to set exactly how close people can get to your avatar. Worried that you might get groped? Just set a personal boundary that doesn't allow anyone to get near you. Of course, this might interfere with games like pick-up basketball, but it's perfect for social settings where you aren't sure what to expect.
Most social VR apps have at least some community standards, but possibly the most elaborate one can be found at AltspaceVR. The company has a clear and detailed Community Standards document, which states that people making racist or xenophobic comments will have their accounts suspended (although Mashable's Adario Strange recently went to a comedy show in AltspaceVR and noted that racism cropped up within minutes of entering the world).
The future of community standards
AltspaceVR defines what harassment is in the VR environment and clearly delineates it from "2D harassment":
Like with real-world interaction, users in VR can feel social discomfort if those that they are interacting with are violating normal real-world personal space. This may include the proximity of one avatar to another, the placement of motion-captured hands, arms or legs close to the avatar's face, or even a high speed approach and passing of one avatar through another. 2D users have to be aware that those in VR experience these sensations very differently. If a user expresses discomfort with a particular behavior and the activity continues, this can be considered harassment and may result in account suspension or termination.
Unlike many social spaces online, AltspaceVR makes clear whose responsibility it is to deal with harassment. "If another community member expresses that something makes them uncomfortable, it is your responsibility to cease that behavior in the presence of them." This line may sound like legalese, but it's actually a key component of a good community policy. Instead of asking the person who is harassed to "just get used to it" or "ignore that person," this policy makes it the responsibility of the accused harasser to stop the unwanted behavior or risk suspension.
And yet AltspaceVR discourages users from reporting people for abuse, suggesting instead that they "click the 'Mute' button on their nametag." Muting is basically like ghosting—you no longer see the avatar moving and can't hear them speaking. None of these systems for blocking, ghosting, and muting deal with the problem of players creating a zillion sock puppet accounts. Neither do these systems prevent mobbing, unless you have a personal space perimeter à laRec Room. Even with a perimeter, mobbing would be pretty overwhelming and awful.
It's encouraging to see companies building anti-abuse and anti-trolling features into their social spaces from the beginning, especially since Twitter has taken almost a decade to get to where Rec Room and AltspaceVR are now with abuse prevention measures. But social relationships in VR are likely to be different from the ones we have online today, so are the old rules of blocking going to be enough?