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April 21, 2017

Ethics in Virtual Reality: Do the Same Rules Apply?

Dr. Lindsay Portnoy Virtual Reality

Dr. Lindsay Portnoy, Educational psychologist, Co-founder of Killer Snails

Top writer in Virtual Reality and Psychology on Medium

Technology versus Humanity Gerd Leonhard Ethics
Technology versus humanity. Gerd Leonhard

When Cassidy Lexcen’s daughter was born with a critically damaged heart and missing a lung, she never thought that the key to her daughter’s survival would be found in a piece of cardboard and a smartphone. Doctors in Minnesota where Lexcen’s twin girls were born were unable to help their daughter Teegan, but Dr. Redmond Burke at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami had a plan. Using Google cardboard and 3D modeling software, Burke was able to recreate and then take a virtual tour of the child’s heart and lung so that in surgery there were no surprises. Thanks to Burke’s innovative use of virtual reality Teegan continues to thrive.

The pervasiveness of virtual reality is abundant in gaming, education, and even business. Now, this new technology is helping doctors prepare for trauma surgeries, helping patients overcome fears, and even aiding in the treatment of PTSD. The real world embodiment of virtual reality allows for simulations that have a meaningful and deep impact on people from all walks of life and is creating collaborations in ways that are unique and deeply beneficial. Virtual reality simulations are helping hospitals work with contractors to build an ideal space for their patients and aiding in pain therapy for patients suffering from chronic pain.

There are clearly many benefits of virtual technology as a tool for teaching, learning, and gaming, yet there are also significant roadblocks to using VR technology. Besides the technical requirements of embarking on a VR journey, there’s the issue of access and equity. Then there are the questions about the ways in which people will interact within virtual environments which all begs the question: How can developers ensure virtual environments are created in a responsible way that is inclusive and respectful of all users?

It’s Not all Bungee Jumps and Burj Khalifa

Immersive VR environments have the potential to impact our lives in exciting new ways, but it is important to acknowledge that there are both positive (free airfare to Burj Khalifa) and negative (cyber bullying) repercussions of this technology. As virtual experiences expand beyond a headset to include haptic suits your full body gets feedback from gameplay. And now those tiny mirror neurons capable of cultivating empathy paired with immersive virtual reality make empathy and affect not only virtual but real. Most experiences harness this power in a positive way, but the physical aspects of this medium also lend themselves to experiences where viewers may feel violated or unsafe especially in gaming or multi-player experiences.

The Guardian recently published a piece warning of the ethical issues raised in virtual reality where users, mostly women, have reported countless types of harassment. The ethical issues in virtual worlds continue to garner attention because as attorney Mark Methinitis points out, “At the point where people do get actual sensory feedback — like a Matrix-type plug in … something where it’s actually plugged into your brain — that’s where we sort of turn a corner and say that things in virtual reality are much more real than they were before.”

Citing an assault that occurred in a virtual environment, one company is taking action to ensure that players have a defensive strategy called a power gesture. The company QuiVr has created a pose that when taken in virtual environments puts up a protective dome around the player allowing them to stay engaged in game play while fending off predatory behavior. This effort has been heralded around the VR world as a great step towards stopping harassment in its tracks.

Technology versus Humanity Gerd Leonhard Ethics

Establishing Norms to Ensure Ethical Experiences

Others are following QuiVr’s suit in seeking ways to establish social norms so the protagonist in a virtual reality experience feels safe. At last year’s Game Developer Conference, Patrick Harris challenged game developers to seek solutions to harassment in virtual worlds, calling for a way to solve what he calls a “damaging experience.”

At this year’s GDC conference there were two sessions and four panelists discussing such ethical dilemmas including professionals such as Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian gave an inspiring advocacy microtalk (@ 59 minutes in) around inclusivity and diversity in games. She shared ways in which game designers are learning to consider the role of female gamers in both representation and access and pushed designers to consider changing the way we think about stories and games. Sarkeesian goes on to implore that developers include marginalized people and important issues in these experience and in ways that truly demonstrate our knowledge of racist and sexist systems of oppression noting, “Games are changing for the better. Be a part of that change.”

In the coming years we will likely look back with rose colored glasses on the piece of cardboard that paired with a smartphone brought us into the virtual reality revolution. My hope is that together we will anticipate the would have, could have, should haves. Did we do all we could to ensure users felt safe and autonomous in VR experiences? Did we create environments to represent the diversity of the human experience? Did we challenge users to become contributors by engaging them in meaningful dialogue about their needs, experiences, successes, and failures? I am hopeful that the answer to these questions is yes, but the story of VR continues to unfold.

What questions about ethics in VR do you have and how can we work together as a community to solve them?


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We’ve seen a tremendous amount of disruptive change coming from the Virtual Reality Industry. It is surely certain that this kind of content will accelerate based on trends in the future.

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