“His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest.”
Jordan Belamire was at her brother’s house when she was sexually harassed via virtual reality. Three minutes into a game called QuiVR, she met a player called BigBro442.
In her Medium post “My First Virtual Reality Sexual Assault,” Belamire explained what happened next:
His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest.
“Stop!” I cried. I must have laughed from the embarrassment and the ridiculousness of the situation. Women, after all, are supposed to be cool, and take any form of sexual harassment with a laugh. But I still told him to stop.
This goaded him on, and 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.
There I was, being virtually groped in a snowy fortress with my brother-in-law and husband watching.”
In response to Belamire’s post, many men?—?and a few women?—?opined that “it’s just a game” or that it’s offensive to compare virtual sexual assault to “the real thing.” The most vehement rebukes boil down to this comment on a repost of the article:
A few commenters came to her defense.
Belamire deactivated her Medium account and Twitter shortly after.
It’s flawed to say virtual harassment isn’t as damaging as “real life” harassment. After all, VR gear is designed to create hyper-realistic moments in your own home—a space that’s supposed to feel safe.
“The goal is often to induce a sense of presence, or being there, thus everything is magnified, and now your own personal space is being violated in a far realer, far more visceral way,” says Kimberly Voll, a developer at Riot Games and a cognitive scientist.
Several women told us they’ve been sexually harassed in first-gen VR games like Second Life, in regular flat screen multiplayer games and now in VR. Most refused to publish their experience, for fear of inviting more harassment. One female gamer shared her story with us via Twitter.
@redpaintfactory was playing Elder Scrolls Online, trying on different outfits, when a user told her to take her clothes off. When she complained to members of her online guild, a fellow guilder laughed and said she should have just done it.
“I refused to let it just happen,” she says. “I point blank said it was shitty to laugh at sexual harassment.” Eventually the game’s moderators got the offender to apologize.
When QuiVR developer Aaron Stanton heard about Belamire’s experience, he told CNNMoney, “My heart sank.”
Stanton and co-developer Jonathan Schenker reacted quickly, adding a “Personal Bubble” to the game that creates a force field around you whenever you feel threatened.
Schenker and Stanton shared the code with industry-wide platform VR Toolkit in the hopes it becomes standard in all VR games.
Margaret Wallace, CEO of game developer Playmatics, tells Dose that QuiVR’s response is “admirable,” but thinks it’s probably impossible to prevent all future harassment.
“Players always interact with our games in ways that are unexpected and emergent over time. In a lot of ways, it’s no different from designing to prevent other kinds of in-game exploits that are detrimental to the game or to the community,” she says.
The industry never established digital boundaries, and now it must adopt social standards that foster a safe gaming culture.
But gamer @redpaintfactory thinks fellow players need to take responsibility, too.
“If men in gaming spaces see a woman dealing with harassment, stand up for her. Stop letting other men get away with their shitty behavior and give you a bad name, she said. “Let them know that not all men act like that and shouldn’t act like that.”