The Dangers of VR Cyberbullying
by Joseph Lim
According to Polygon, Patrick Harris of Minority Media began his presentation at the 2016 Games Developers Conference, by claiming that harassment is “way, way, way worse” in VR. Harris had a chilling example to give to a skeptical audience. “[Abusive players] can lean in and touch your chest and groin,” says Mr. Harris. The conference hall was, understandably, left in silence.
Anonymity, the hallmark of the free internet, has also helped create a toxic environment of cyberbullying, which includes acts such as unwanted sexting, dick-pics, defamation, etc. VR takes this chronic problem a step forward by enabling pseudo-physical contact, blurring the legal definition of what constitutes physical sexual abuse.
There are many legal conundrums that lawmakers are poorly prepared to address. Reed Smith LLP delineated privacy risks from data collection practices by Niantic, developer of Pokémon Go. Niantic made a “permissions error,” of requesting full account information from google account users, whose email address, mobile device camera, exact location information became vulnerable to hackers. Like Facebook’s scandal with Cambridge Analytics, Niantic remains suspect to third party information sharing. Private information can be used for behavioral advertising purposes or surveillance by government agents. Government agents in particular are protected to collect vast amounts of information from “sources that few would believe the government could gain unfettered access to, but which, under current fourth amendment doctrine and statutory protections are completely accessible” from “fourth parties,” which refer to private companies which gain information from third parties. Whatever political ideology one espouses, reality is that personal information is increasingly up to grabs.
Other unresolved issues include, distribution and licensing on VR and Augmented Reality (AR), patent claims, advertising, and - most relevant to this article - personal injury and product liability. Associate Nabil Bisharat writes that problems range from epileptic seizures and physical injuries to copycat violence. There is even a Pokémon GO Death Tracker on the web, which catalogs incidents such as a “9-year-old boy killed by truck driver playing Pokémon Go in central Japan.” Business Insider, back in 2017, cited a study from Purdue university, suggesting that “two deaths, 31 injuries, and nearly $500,000 in vehicle damage” were caused by Pokémon Go gameplay. It is notable that Niantic responded to this by making it hard to play the game while driving.
However, documented intentional injuries raise concern of whether the tragic story of Breck Bednar is merely an exception. 14-year-old, Breck Bednar was “sexually and sadistically” killed in 2015 by then 19-year-old computer engineer Lewis Daynes. Daynes manipulated Breck online through playing long hours of war games such as Call of Duty and Battlefield together. Critics argue that Daynes’ mental state was developed independently from games, forwarding the claim that there is no scientific evidence supporting the link between violent online games and murder. However, one can point out that the power dynamic was skewed in favor of Daynes, and that Bednar’s mother, because of Bednar’s disconnect from her, couldn’t intervene to prevent the tragedy from happening. The lack of an accountability mechanism, could plausibly expose not only youth, but gamers of all ages to people like Daynes and Dating Game Serial Killer Rodney Alcala.
In addition, although scientific research on the link between violence and gaming is difficult because many correlating factors, such as childhood background, experience, hormones, etc. factor into a violent disposition, one cannot conclude that gaming and violence are unrelated. There is medical evidence of the striking similarities of game addiction to alcohol and drug addiction. However, according to recovered game addict Tom Meltzer, there is a reluctance in the American Medical Association (AMA) to include it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as it is considered symptoms of a deeper problem. If personal restraint and judgement are severely impaired by drug addictions, it seems reasonable to find such similarities in game addiction. There is the possibility that the hesitation of authorities like the AMA is only worsening an inadequately addressed societal harm.
Here, a deeper point can be made by referencing Eminem. In his famous song Stan, Eminem makes the important distinction that although the artist (i.e. the game developer) may not be responsible for the crimes committed by a fan (i.e. the gamer), the fan may still have locked his wife in a car trunk and committed suicide because of the artist’s work. The ethics of art is a topic I will discuss in a separate article, but it is hard to accept Georg Baselitz’s view that “the artist is not responsible to anyone. His social role is asocial; his only responsibility consists in an attitude to the work he does,” when artists create worlds that reality models itself after.
Thus, if the status quo continues, in continuum to current forms of online harassment, online gamers will further lose the ability to resist unwanted advances because of anonymous and unescapable physical interaction on VR. Parents will continue to lose the power to protect their children from making disciplined and safe decisions, as children are further detached online. Harassment threats will increase when information is freely given out to private companies, often poorly equipped to secure their servers from external threats. According to Cybint news, there is a hacker attack every 39 seconds, 43% of which are targeted at small businesses. In addition, governments or dangerous individuals can exploit such information for selfish gain or to cause indelible harm.
It is challenging for VR companies to respond to the problems above. However, some put faith in the advancement of technology. Riot Games, has allegedly reduced verbal abuse on League of Legends by 40% by vetting chats through artificial intelligence. Moreover, it has created a tribunal system for gamers to decide on whether an action of another player was abusive. Cybersmile has posted helpful online resources to give gamers advice. Niantic’s approach of disabling certain game functions in dangerous situations has been effective. Some even reject Harris’s reservations all together, arguing that VR helps foster within game users a sense of empathy. I respond to this claim in my article VR Pornography: What is the Debate?
Nevertheless, during a time when we are trying to understand the mere iceberg of the social effects of an immensely disruptive technology like VR, it is dangerous, even life-threatening, to proceed with blissful optimism. My conclusion is clear, yet sobering. Without immediate responses from VR gaming and technology companies, cyberbullying on VR will only deepen the destructive legacy that cyberbullying has had on many people.