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Heroes

She was sexually harassed in a VR game. So the game added self-defense superpowers.

Jordan Belamire's story starts in a snowy, medieval fortress shooting arrows at zombies and giant spiders.

The fortress wasn't real, of course; it was a level in a video game called QuiVr. She was actually standing in the living room of her brother-in-law's home in Redwood City. In her hands were two motion-sensing video game controllers and strapped to her head was the HTC Vive — one of the best and first consumer-level virtual reality (VR) headsets available.

A man using the HTC Vive. Photo by Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images.


Belamire was completely immersed in this virtual snow-blanketed landscape.

"Never had I experienced virtual reality that felt so real," Belamire wrote of her time playing QuiVr. "I was smitten. I never wanted to leave this world."

VR is a essentially a series of games brought to life by a headset that immerses you in a 3D, 360-degree simulated environment. The headset tracks your head movements so that if you look up in real life, you'll see the simulated sky. Look to your left, and there's a fast approaching enemy. Look to your right, and you see a fellow player, signed in to the game with you.

VR promises to be at least the next big thing in entertainment. At most? An interactive technology as ubiquitous as TV or the internet.

But VR is not without some unexpected problems — and Belamire's experience with the game soon turned sour.

Belamire booted up a multiplayer version of the same game, launching herself back into the same, snowy, virtual world. This time, however, she had other real life players — virtually — beside her.

Photo by Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images.

Between waves of attacking zombies, a nearby player began groping Belamire's avatar — grabbing at her chest with a disembodied 3D floating hand.

It was just as weird and creepy as it sounds.

"I must have laughed from the embarrassment and the ridiculousness of the situation," Belamire said. "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."

The other player didn't stop. In fact, he chased and followed Belamire, continuing his virtual assault despite her multiple pleas to stop. Frustrated, she had no choice but to rip off her headset and log out of the game.

Belamire left the game wondering if virtual reality was destined to become yet another space where women are chased out by targeted harassment.

Photo by Glenn Chapman/AFP/Getty Images.

She wrote of the experience in a blog post (which has since been deleted) and then, presumably, expected that to be the end of it. After all, tech companies have been notoriously hit or miss when it comes to responding to online harassment.

Then something unexpected happened. Belamire got a response from the game company.

"The first thing I felt was that we had let someone down," wrote Andrew Stanton, a developer for QuiVR. "We should have prevented this in the first place."

Stanton and fellow developer Jonathan Schenker were deeply saddened and disturbed by Belamire's experience in their game but used it as motivation to solve the problem. "No one should be able to treat another player like [Belamire] had been treated again," Stanton said.

They introduced an in-game solution in the form of a superpower. With the push of a button, players were granted the ability to create a personal bubble around their avatar that makes anyone who enters it disappear from view. It's a simple and innovative solution that puts the power directly in the player's hands to control their personal player-space in a virtual world.

"We don’t know if this solution will work perfectly," Stanton wrote. "And it’s certainly not the only solution; like everyone in VR, we’re just learning how to approach these very real problems. "

VR is a young technology, which means now is the time for developers to implement forward-thinking solutions to these inevitable problems.

Virtual reality essentially promises a new plane of reality. One where you can be whoever you want to be and one where, ideally, you have a reasonable expectation of privacy and safety.

Mark Zuckerberg has been a big supporter of VR technology and its potential to extend beyond gaming into social interactions. Photo by Glenn Chapman/AFP/Getty Images.

Harassment and bullying are an unfortunately ubiquitous part of the gaming community. Game creators across all platforms are addressing it in different ways. Riot Games, for example, built a "player behavior team" filled with psychology Ph.D.s to analyze, study, and tackle the rampant harassment they found in their online communities.

VR has the potential to be a mainstream entertainment platform that reaches more people than standard video games. The difference is that VR games feel real to those playing — meaning things like virtual sexual harassment feel just like real-world sexual harassment and can cause the same emotional trauma. To that end, solutions are badly needed to protect players like Belamire who had her experience ruined in mere minutes.

Photo by Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images.

The developers of QuiVr plan to make their "personal bubble" technology available to all VR game developers — and Jordan Belamire thanked them for addressing her concerns so quickly and efficiently.

Wherever this whole VR thing goes, it should be a place where everyone can have fun, where no one has to be subjected to sexual harassment or bullying or unwanted attention.

It's a lofty promise, but VR is inherently untied to the laws of reality. Giving players bully-stopping superpowers is simply a matter of writing code. Maybe the future of VR is the future of personal empowerment. Maybe not.

At the very least, you should be able to kill some zombies in peace.

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