Between waves of zombie attacks, Jordan Belamire’s teammate turned against her. She was playing a multiplayer virtual reality game with her husband and brother-in-law in 2016 when another teammate — a stranger — approached her and began groping her virtual body.
She yelled at him to stop and tried to run away, but he chased her. “Encouraged, he even pushed his hand to my virtual crotch and started rubbing,” Belamire wrote in a statement. after at Medium.com. “The public virtual chase and grope happened a full week ago and I’m still thinking about it.” Her post, titled “My First Virtual Reality Groping,” was widely shared on social media in 2016, sparking a conversation about sexual harassment in virtual reality games.
This year, Belamire’s story made the rounds again after a beta tester of Meta’s Horizon Worlds platform reported being groped by another user late last year. In response Meta announced that it would set a personal boundary of four feet around each player’s avatar.
But in many parts of the Internet, the mention of ‘virtual groping’ has been met with disdain and ridicule. Any given Reddit thread on the subject is likely to be inundated with comments belittling the idea. Commentators often bring non-VR games like Halo and Call of Duty – where players have a long tradition of simulating sexual acts on the avatars of defeated enemies – to argue that cases like Belamire’s were no different. “I want to know what kind of VR setup they have that makes them feel groping,” wrote a Twitter user.
Regardless of what’s considered acceptable in non-VR games, two decades of research shows that VR affects us differently. VR is designed to trick our senses, and psychologists have repeatedly shown that it doesn’t take much to make our brains think of a virtual body like ours — and fear for its safety. Experts say this element of immersion adds new possibilities to the ongoing problem of online harassment and poses a challenge to moderation as we set social norms in virtual spaces.
When you stand in front of a mirror and move your body, you see your reflection doing the same. “All our lives, when we’ve done that, it’s been our bodies,” explains Mel Slater, who studies the psychology of virtual environments at the University of Barcelona. But VR opens up a new range of possibilities. As a participant in one of Slater’s VR experiments, you’d probably start by standing in front of a simulated mirror and watching your avatar — which looks very different from your real body — obey your brain’s commands.
From there, as far as your brain is concerned, “the overwhelming evidence is that this” [avatar] is your body,” Slater says. ‘It’s not that you believe it. Well, it’s impossible to describe. You have to experience it. You have a very strong feeling, ‘this is my body’”, he says.
This illusion is what psychologists call “embodiment,” and it’s part of what makes VR so immersive. The virtual environment doesn’t have to look particularly realistic for this to happen, Slater says, which is important because VR’s animation style can range from cartoonish to uncanny valley to realistic. To feel a sense of ownership over your virtual body, it simply has to move with your real body, matching what your brain expects to see, says Sofia Seinfeldwho studies perception and embodiment within VR at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia.
The core of embodiment research is classical psychology experiment from 1998 that first demonstrated what is known as the rubber hand illusion. Researchers had each participant place their left arm on a table, hidden from view by a screen. In its place, a life-size rubber arm was exposed. The researcher then stroked both the real and fake hands with paint brushes in total synchrony. Because the sensation matched what they saw happening with the rubber hand, the participants reported feeling that the rubber hand belonged to them.
Something similar happens when we become embodied in VR avatars, and it seems that these experiences can influence how we behave and think. In a 2018 research by Seinfeld and her former colleagues at the University of Barcelona, domestic violence offenders experienced a VR scene of abuse from the body of a woman. Prior to the VR experience, offenders were less able to recognize fear on women’s faces than non-offenders, and often classified fearful expressions as happy. After being embodied in a female victim, the perpetrators were better able to recognize those fearful expressions for what they were.
Careful VR interventions may also be able to reduce our unconscious biases. Last year Slater’s team experimented with a VR intervention involving US police officers witnessed a racially offensive interrogation of the body of a white spectator or the black suspect. Three weeks later, the officers who perceived the black man’s perspective were more sympathetic to another black suspect than those who viewed the interrogation as bystanders.
VR is clearly a powerful tool that allows us to step into other people’s shoes. But in addition to the possibilities for good, there are also possibilities for harm, as virtual embodiment can open doors to traumatic events in digital spaces. When we’re embodied in a virtual avatar, we’ll fear for that body’s safety, even if we know we can’t be hurt, says Rebecca Friborg, who is researching embodiment in VR at Centrale Nantes, a technical school in France. In fact, she adds, scientists can determine the strength of the embodiment illusion by how strongly people respond to a threat to their virtual bodies.
And repeated virtual threats don’t take participants out of the illusion, Friborg says. In a study Published last July, Friborg and her colleagues repeatedly subjected participants to the same virtual threat — a machine that malfunctioned and shattered their hands — but their sense of embodiment still didn’t wane. “I was surprised,” says Friborg. “We actually thought they would stop responding, but people were still responding a lot,” she says.
The threat of harm does not have to involve violent crushing of the hand in order to react with alarm. Another study from Slater’s lab, from 2010showed that the closer an unfamiliar avatar approached participants in VR, the more their nervous systems were primed for a fight-or-flight response.
“If you don’t know who the person is who is barging in,” Slater says, “it’s a really strong signal to you that something bad is going on.”
So going back to the case of virtual groping, even if you can’t feel the virtual hand grab your virtual body, you can still feel the alarm associated with this violation and react accordingly. “It’s a reflex response, just like you would try to protect your own body if someone is trying to bully or hurt you on the street,” Seinfeld says.
The threat of harassment is especially present for women, ethnic minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community, who are often singled out for harassment in gaming rooms in general, says Guo Freeman, who studies social dynamics in VR at Clemson University’s GAME Lab. In a study published in April, Freeman interviewed 30 different VR users about their experiences with in-game harassment. For many of the players she interviewed, dealing with the harassment meant withdrawing from social VR spaces altogether.
“All of a sudden, it’s like, well, why am I here? What am I doing here?” explains Robyn Smith, a VR blogger known online as RobynzReality, who was not involved in Freeman’s investigation. She describes being overrun by other players when she enters public lobbies in VR, who hear her higher voice and begin to demand, “Are you a girl? Oh my god, girls don’t play.” One of her first experiences with VR harassment came in the game Hyper Dash, when her own teammates and their opponents surrounded her and pushed her into a corner.
It’s not real life, but “you feel the same. You feel cornered,” she says. And while your first instinct may be to remove yourself from the situation by taking off your headset, asking victims of harassment to just leave doesn’t solve the problem, she says. “You have every right to be there, just like anyone who has bought that hardware.”
Harassment of players from the platform is especially unfortunate because VR can also be a very positive experience, Freeman says. Many LGBTQ+ VR users, especially transgender users, reported that VR can be great for exploring their gender presentation in a way that may not be possible in the real world. “It can become a very supportive social space for all kinds of marginalized users,” Freeman says. “We just need to find a way to mitigate those risks.”
Defining harassment in virtual spaces is an ongoing challenge for moderators, Freeman says. Much of the behavior in VR chat rooms wouldn’t be acceptable in the real world, but that doesn’t always make it harassment. A study participant told Freeman that sticks were repeatedly thrown at them when entering a VR chat room. Was this harassment or just plain annoyance, perhaps typical of a space where lots of kids and teens are running around? In VR, it can be hard to tell, Freeman says.
“I think everyone has very different expectations of what should happen there,” Freeman says. Unlike most real-life situations, there isn’t a set of social norms that dictate how everyone behaves and expects to interact with others, she says. “Because this environment is so new, people just don’t know it yet.”
Conflicting sets of social norms may explain why a gamer grew up in the culture of Duty would be horrified at the idea that virtual harassment of another’s avatar is something to be condemned. “It’s not that they’re bad people,” says VR enthusiast Smith. “It’s just that they grew up in this” [non-VR] game culture where it is accepted.”
But the research on the embodiment is clear that there is an important distinction between mainstream and VR gaming experiences. The virtual worlds of VR have the potential to influence the way we think, feel and behave in ways that non-immersive games don’t.
When Belamire first stepped into virtual reality that day in 2016, she was fascinated by how real it felt. At the top of the tallest tower in the game, she looked down at the 100-foot (30-meter) drop below. Her fear of heights flared up.
Later, after groping, Belamire thought side by side on these moments. “The virtual groping feels just as real,” she wrote. “Of course you don’t get physically touched, just like you’re not really thirty feet off the ground, but it’s still scary as hell.”