Imagine you are in a virtual reality archery game. Your avatar is a simple disembodied floating helmet with two hands clutching a bow. While you skillfully mow down a wave of the undead, another player BigBro442 identifies you as female by your voice and before you know it, he is making overt gestures in the game. You scream “STOP” and try to run away but BigBro442 continues to chase you , making grabbing and pinching motions, invading your personal space. You quit the game and try to convince yourself that it wasn’t real, but you find that the wave of emotions you experienced are all too realistic to dismiss. This was a real account of Jordan Belamire who was virtually groped in a VR game called QuiVR.
The sad truth is that sexual harassment and sexual assault are a common occurance in society. With the advancement of the internet and social media these crimes acquired a new dimension and became prevalent in the cyber world as well, in the form of cyberstalking, voyeurism etc. At present we can differentiate between online and real world harassment. But what happens when the gap between the virtual and real world is minimal. Virtual reality has made this possible to an extent. This technology is at the moment, limited to audio and visual cues but when haptic gear is employed in the near future, virtual reality will incorporate the sense of touch as well. The resultant hyper-realistic virtual spaces have given crimes a third dimension. The question that arises is are we equipped to deal with a situation where virtual harassment gains a dimension, so realistic, that it is almost impossible to differentiate between the two?
How real is VR?
At the very outset, it is important to establish how realistic VR actually is. Studies have proven that the psychological response experienced by the body in a VR environment is the same as the one experienced in a real environment. It has been observed that not only do people experience a strong emotional response during immersion, their virtual experiences can have a lasting psychological impact even in the real world. Thus, at a cognitive level, there is little or no difference between the real and virtual world.
Even in the context of personal space, human reactions in the virtual and real world are almost identical. Studies have shown that when virtual humans are standing too close to other virtual reality users, they experience the same discomfort or distress when one’s personal space is invaded in real life, like in crowded spaces, or while standing in a queue. The physiological response appropriately changes when we like the people we are surrounded by in the virtual world. For instance when users see an attractive virtual human approaching them in an intimate manner, the body reacts accordingly and displays stronger signs of attraction, such as a blush response. In the case of action games, the most widely available form of VR, the player’s mind and body react to threats in the game as though they were real. The reaction is complete “, with the visceral unease of vertigo, the proxemic discomfort of space-invading virtual humans, and reflex-like shocks and startles that accompany perceived threats to our body serving as evidence that a ludic subject and her affective experience are not so separable after all”
Sexual Assault in VR
Assault is an intentional act which puts the other person in reasonable apprehension of immediate harm being caused to them upon occurrence of physical contact. In a virtual environment, it can be argued that assault cannot occur as there is prior knowledge that physical contact that can cause hurt is not possible. S 354 of the IPC, assault or criminal force to a woman with the intent to outrage her modesty, requires the occurrence of either “assault” or actual “criminal force”. The current definitions of both cannot be utilised to prosecute an offence committed in VR.
No matter how realistic VR becomes, the victim will experience every element of the trauma mentally, but the physical action and the resultant physical impact will always be absent. S.354A of the IPC on the other hand under sub-section (iii) and (iv) showing pornograpy against the will of a woman or making sexually coloured remarks, can be expanded to include such acts done in a virtual environment. Where another player sends sexually inappropriate media via the communication system of the game, S67A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 can come to the rescue.
As VR closes the gap between virtual and real, we have not reached a point where there is absolutely no difference between the two. The current situation presents a need to expand the law to include acts in a virtual environment that cause a high degree of trauma. The existing legal framework provides limited protection from such sexually inappropriate conduct in the virtual world. Simply put, a case of virtual groping, like Jordan Belamire does not have a formal legal recourse.
Inconsistency in experience
The impact of inappropriate conduct varies depending on the person. In a virtual environment, the experience is also influenced with the sophistication of the avatar and the type of the platform, leading to wide variations in the experience. Taking note of Belamir’s experiences Oculus Rift undertook a study to assess the prevalence of harassment in virtual reality and formulate policies to deal with the same. It was confirmed that the sense of being harassed did vary widely from user to user. For long term players, harassment in the virtual world is not bothersome as they are highly acclimatized to the toxic gaming culture. The study categorized harassment as verbal, physical and environmental. Out of this, participants focused on physical aggression which is felt prominently in the virtual space and can definitely be more traumatic as compared to other forms of online harassment.
The only drawback of this study is that it is limited to virtual gaming experiences, where harassment is attributed to the infamous toxic gaming culture fueled by hyper-masculinity in the gaming world. The reactions to inappropriate conduct in other forms of virtual environments, such as workplaces remain largely unexplored due to their current limited applicability.
Fortunately, the realistic immersion provided by VR has a flip side as well. If on one hand, it has expanded the scope of sexual violence, then on the other it is being used as an agent to curb the same. The perceived reality of VR has made it an effective tool for sexual harassment sensitisation. Taking it one step further, in Singapore, four women have launched “Girl,Talk” which is VR simulation of realistic sexual harassment and assault scenarios, allowing women to learn how to effectively handle such situations when they happen in real life.
The Hurdle of Jurisdiction
Even if at some point , we are able to develop new laws or amend old ones to address player safety in a virtual world, overcoming its massive jurisdictional challenge is not easy. Virtual spaces are usually accessed by people all over the world. For instance, the Company that developed the virtual space could be registered in Canada, the player indulging in inappropriate behaviour could be sitting in his house in the US and the player , who is on the receiving end of the harassment could be experiencing trauma in the UK. Even if the acts in the game are legitimately classified as sexual harassment, prosecuting the player in a different jurisdiction is not easy task. The chances of securing a conviction and extradition when the perpetrator resides in another jurisdiction are extremely slim. While the need for certain common international regulations for virtual conduct is a dire necessity, in the meantime, self regulation seems to be the ideal solution.
Virtual reality platforms have to develop methods to help players protect themselves and a robust reporting mechanism to enforce the code of conduct. QuiVR’s “personal bubble” feature, that causes any person attempting to physically reach the player in the game, disappear, is a good example of inbuilt defence mechanisms.
VR as a technology is still evolving and so are its applications. However, even at this nascent stage, the issue of sexual harassment has been highlighted on several occasions and warrants a serious discussion. There is a need to urge VR platforms to build features to protect against such behavior. At the same time, we need to initiate discussion into the issue of modifying existing laws to punish such behavior taking into account the development in technology. Early recognition of this issue can allow us to put frameworks in place before VR gains mass accessibility and applicability.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Saanchi is a final-year student at Amity Law School, Delhi. She has an appetite for exploring contemporary legal issues and has an avid interest in constitutional law, technology law and arbitration. She can be reached at email@example.com.