Should sexual harassment in a Virtual Reality setting be a chargeable offence?

sexual harassment

Gaming, as well as the way we socialise has evolved phenomenally over the past few years… So much so, that we are now venturing into online virtual worlds, via Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, in order to take our gaming and social interactions to a new level.

While most online settings are innocent enough, sexual harassment and virtual groping/fondling can turn an innocent online game into a scenario that makes the player, whether male or female, feel uncomfortable. Imagine a scenario where the player is immersed in a massive multiplayer online game (MMO), the player has invested months of their time and effort in order to build up their character – that may resemble either a male/female character – only to be fondled or groped whilst in an online setting that they initially felt comfortable in. As we know, multiplayer games allow players to interact with one another, even through VR; however, what if the interaction is of the unwanted nature mentioned above.

In a report by The Guardian, this is the exact experience that Jordan Belamire had to go through. As stated within The Guardian report,  Striding through the snow-covered fortress, shooting zombies with her bow and arrow, Jordan Belamire felt like a god – right up until the moment someone named BigBro442 decided to “virtually rub [her] chest” and make her feel like just another “powerless woman”.

“Even when I turned away from him, he chased me around, making grabbing and pinching motions near my chest,” she wrote in a Medium post of her experience playing QuiVR, a virtual reality game. “Emboldened, he even shoved his hand toward my virtual crotch and began rubbing.”

It’s scenarios like this that bring up the question, should sexual harassment, groping, fondling, or any other unwanted sexual act be considered a chargeable offence even though it happens within a virtual environment?

In order to gain insight on this, Tech IT Out reached out to some of South Africa’s gaming and tech heavyweights in order to hear their opinion on the subject.

arthur goldstuckArthur Goldstuck Managing Director of worldwideworx.com reveals that: “Virtual harassment goes back to the beginnings of multiplayer role-playing games online, when it was only text and one had to imagine the world in which one was moving. There was an infamous case of a player virtually “raping” another, using only text. It was a massive scandal in the online community, but was never aired outside of it, as no one would take it seriously. The same is likely to happen in the world of VR role-playing – there is barely knowledge of what can happen and how, let alone legal guidelines and case history.”

pippa tshabalalaPippa Tshabalala, Editor and Owner of unexpectedpippa.co.za writes: “Yeah I think any instance of sexual harassment should be reported. To make it a chargeable offence (which I’m not saying it shouldn’t be) might be difficult because it becomes a question of which laws the offending person is subject to if the players reside in different countries for example. That said, all acts of a sexual nature should always be consensual, so yes, I think sexual harassment in a VR environment should carry the same weight and consequences as real life instances. We need to rethink our attitudes and ideas about virtual interaction.”

LazyGamer.net Geoffrey TimGeoffrey Tim, Managing Editor of Lazygamer.net adds that: “There have been calls for those affected to “grow up,” and “get over it” and cries of “it’s not real!” ad infinitum, just as you’d expect. Something to note is that Virtual Reality, really effective Virtual Reality, is so immersive that I understand why people can feel just like they’ve been physically violated. If somebody feels like they’ve been harassed, then they have been. I don’t, however, think making these sorts of offences criminal charges is viable – even if they should be. Policing the internet has proven to be fruitless. I think the developers of QuiVR have stumbled on something clever with their proposed solution. Players can create forcefields and magically wave away their harassers. It’s empowering, and it’s something I hope to see implemented in more multiplayer VR games.”

marco cocomelloMarco Cocomello from Gaming With Coco states that: “Any actions between two people should always be protected by some sort of law. Regardless of being in a virtual environment… if a person has a will behind this digital character, and makes sexual advances towards another person, it should be considered harassment. That character is being controlled by someone who has the power to decide what to do and what not to do. In this case, he/she decided to make sexual advances towards someone. Something that is not appropriate. The biggest issue here is that online VR characters are being controlled by human beings, and that should immediately protect people in some degree as it would in their normal, everyday lifestyle.”

mariska de BruinMariska de Bruin from Gaming Entertainment Solutions SA writes: “Yes and no. the no part: A VR character is just that, it’s fantasy. The yes part: But if other players inhibit you from enjoying the game then there should be a console helpline to report such behaviour. In every respect, sexual harassment is not on, regardless of which environment it is taking place in, VR or otherwise. I know I sound a bit contradictory. I don’t condone such behaviour. It’s unacceptable. If one can stoop to such a level of misconduct in a game what type of person are you real life?”

grant hindsSouth African YouTube gaming sensation, Grant Hinds, adds that: “I definitely think sexual advances/predatory behaviour in the virtual reality sphere should be chargeable. In fact, I’m a believer that rape threats and death threats online, in whatever virtual space, should be held as real-world threats. The internet is a real place with real people behind their keyboards/VR sets, so what difference is there between a threatening phone call or SMS versus a threatening behaviour on a forum or Facebook post? It should then be even more obvious in a space where you have a virtual representation of yourself with physical mannerisms. It should be treated with the same severity as an offline offence and have the weight of the law behind victims in these spheres.”

GeeknodeJonathan Bester, Editor and Owner of Geeknode states that: “Any sort of harassment, be it sexual, verbal, physical, etc. should be a chargeable offence in my opinion. ”

“We, as a community, really need to move past this point in history where people are ignored when they are victimised in any way,shape, or form. For too long people in authority have turned a blind eye to any type of victimisation and I strongly feel people need to be punished for harming others online or offline.”

Gaming Entertainment SolutionsLeon de Bruin Editor and Owner of Gaming Entertainment Solutions adds that: “In any environment, sexual harassment, groping, fondling or any unwanted sexual act must be a chargeable offence, but with everything there will be exceptions. In my opinion, exceptions will be software/game/experiences where it is a part of the goal, this can be viewed as being sick or wrong but these things are out there. You will and probably already do get software/games out in the VR environment that is intended to play out pornographic tendencies, in these situations, it is up to the user to be aware of what they are getting involved in.”

De Bruin adds that, “For any other software/games/experiences I think that all kind of harassment, bullying and illegal acts should be banned. Action needs to be taken against the offenders. The question remains on who will be responsible in taking action, where does a user complain to or send a grievance to in order for action to be taken. Is it the system that they are using, developer, publisher or another authority group?”

“People already become hateful and attacking when they can be anonymous online so this is a serious point of discussion seeing that Virtual Reality is becoming mainstream,” concludes de Bruin.

Tech It OutDarryl Linington from Tech IT Out writes: “In conclusion, whether bodies touch or not, acts of a sexual nature should always be consensual… no matter whether it is in real life or within a virtual space. At the end of the day,  sexual harassment, sexual abuse – regardless of physical or virtual – should be reported. If it is in the online space, contact the support team of that title… If things do get out of hand, report it to local authorities within the territory that you live in.”

What are your thoughts on this topic? Let us know in the comments section below!

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the views of those who commented, and not the views of Tech IT Out Media.

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Editor of Tech IT Out. Former radio host of Cliffcentral.com. Former Editor of IT News Africa and ITF Gaming. All round techie, gamer and entrepreneur. For Editorial Enquiries Contact: Darryl@techitout.co.za or via +27788021400.