by Lance Powell
I started researching harassment in Social VR in 2017 (pre-Quest) when there were significantly fewer users, and this work became my M.A. thesis, called: A Framework for Understanding and Detecting Harassment in Social VR. As part of my research, I would spend hours in the big three platforms: Altspace, Rec Room, and VRChat, watching and recording instances of harassment but intervening as little as possible since I was meant to be an observer.
The userbase then was a small fraction of the audience now, so I couldn’t enter in 2017 and expect harassment to happen. Over the following months, I marked the times when harassment occurred and it was most often on Friday and Saturday nights, and generally the Americans had been drinking. So, I spent much of my weekends in Altspace at the now defunct public campfire. The most severe single instance came when a man entered the room and started mimicking sex acts with female avatars, using a stick with a marshmallow on the tip (not a good prop in hindsight), two male henchmen saw the harassing behavior and joined in. The first person to pushback against the behavior was a Colombian immigrant to the US, who spoke fluent English but maintained an accent; the offender picked up on the accent and started using racial slurs, telling him to ‘Go back to Mexico’, and began chanting ‘Trump 2016’. An overly polite moderator eventually warned and booted him, but the damage had already been done. At least 10 people in the room had found themselves harassed.
This isn’t an Altspace problem though since I witnessed and recorded harassing behavior in every platform I visited. Of course, I heard accounts from other players too when I asked. For example, there was (and still is) a small platform known as vTime, and they had a presentation room that allowed for image uploads that was intended for business meetings. In my first visit to vTime, a woman told me about the place and I asked her to show me; she did and, as we talked, mentioned that more than once she came to the room and men showed unsolicited images of their genitals to her. In Rec Room, I had a feminine avatar and was called the C-word. I once hosted a friend in a dark-skinned avatar, and she was called the N-word. Just this week in VRChat a BBC reporter posing as a 13-year-old willingly went into a stranger’s private instance and, mother of all surprises, found sexual content.