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An Empathetic New World

The first time I really delved into the social aspects of gaming was while doing MMORPG research during college. We explored the communities and friendships that grew out of games like EQ2, WOW, and Second Life. More specifically, we looked at the transnational friendships that were popping up in games that were not server-locked. I was fascinated that these worlds could help bridge cultural or linguistic boundaries so easily. The fact that we were in the game world together often forged an immediate, easy bond.

A new wave of these online communities appear to be in their infancy as pioneers explore social VR. Apps like AltspaceVR encourage guests to befriend folks from all over the globe. You can sit around virtual tables that bridge 3 or 4 continents at a time. And while VR probably doesn’t quite offer the sense of a shared task or goal that helps people immediately bond in MMOs, there are a new set of features that can make communication seem more organic.

Conversations are no longer only carried out through chat boxes. When you meet someone you can go through the motions of shaking their hand. Despite its imagined future as a lonely medium, one that pulls you away from the real world and real people, VR is promising as a tool to help foster new types of connection and community. Just like the MMO’s of yore.

First off, VR is often heralded as the new “empathy machine”. As a reflection of that, Games for Change gave VR its own summit in 2017. People believe strongly in its power for good. Social VR, with its implied inclusive nature, must include all user types. Including the trolls of the world. Interestingly, it seems like VR might have a dampening effect on some of that bad behavior we are so accustomed to.

Adario Strange of Mashable describes an experience he had while attending a VR comedy show: “one guy got on stage and tried out a couple of racist jokes, after which he was promptly booed off stage and the show went on without a hitch.” It is encouraging to imagine someone in a virtual space, actively, verbally, being booed until they desist. Although I try to avoid setting foot into internet comment’s sections, when I do, I begin craving justice. VR seems to unmask people, just a bit. Our feeling of presence tricks us into believing that we should “behave” like we are in a public space, particularly in social VR.

On the flip side, harassment in VR is already a full blown problem. Beyond the negative words or unsolicited imagery we are accustomed to encountering on other platforms, VR brings us, creepy, unwanted “touch”. We have a real sense of our space being violated.

Aaron Stanton discovered this problem after his own social VR App became the crime scene for some nasty harassment. While his team had spent time designing the “personal bubble” he still believes this particular vein of negative interaction will always be likely within multiplayer experiences. For Aaron, part of a solution is in re-empowering victims: “what if a player had tools on hand to change the outcome of the encounter before it ended in a negative way?” Drawing on the imagery of standing up to a bully, what if, “with a finger, and with a little flick, sent that player flying off the screen like an ant?” VR spaces, when carefully designed, could upend these situations where we feel powerless. Maybe you can’t fully protect guests from negative experiences, but perhaps you can give them the means to reshape those moments and bend them to their advantage.

Beyond allowing us to design more carefully balanced social dynamics, there are opportunities to improve how we relate to others. VR producers often want to use the ”empathy machine” by casting guests into the role of someone who is suffering or overcoming monumental challenges. You live their challenges fist hand. Amelia Winger-Bearskin, designer of Your Hands Are Feet notes that this feels shallow, you are only “trying-on” their experience of pain. For Amelia the piece of VR that builds social empathy lies in introspection. She is working to build interactive spaces “that allows you to come into contact with your own humanity. When I can see my own humanity… then I am able to see that in another person”. For Amelia those experiences are what help craft empathy over those that ask you to step into a role.

A screne shot from Your Hands Are Feet

Our sense that we embody our representations in VR goes a long way in helping us craft a sense of community and implying a certain expected caliber of behavior. What seems potentially powerful is our chance to explore being ourselves within new virtual worlds, rather than trading that out for the mantle of a character. On the other hand this makes us more vulnerable, and there is an interesting design challenge presented in finding ways to empower virtuous users. MMO’s never really addressed harassment in a satisfactory manner (at least while I was playing them). VR doesn’t have much of a choice, it is too potent. Luckily that means the solutions and experiences we craft, as well as the communities we form, also have the potential to be potent.

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