A Philosopher's Blog

Gaming & Groping II: Obligations

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on November 2, 2016

In my previous essay, I discussed some possible motivations for groping in VR games, which is now a thing. The focus of what follows is on the matter of protecting gamers from such harassment on the new frontiers of gaming.

Since virtual groping is a paradigm of a first world problem, it might be objected that addressing it is a waste of time. After all, the objection can be made that resources that might be expended on combating virtual groping should be spent on addressing real groping After all, a real grope is far worse than a virtual grope—and virtual gropes can be avoided by simply remaining outside of the virtual worlds.

This sort of objection does have some merit. After all, it is sensible to address problems in order of their seriousness. To use an analogy, if a car is skidding out of control at the same time an awful song comes on the radio, then the driver should focus on getting the car back under control and not waste time on the radio.  Unless, of course, it is “The Most Unwanted Song.”

The reasonable reply to this objection is that this is not a situation where it is one or the other, but not both. While time spent addressing virtual groping is time not spent on addressing real groping, addressing virtual groping does not preclude addressing real groping. Also, pushing this sort of objection can easily lead into absurdity: for anything a person is doing, there is almost certainly something else they could be doing that would have better moral consequences. For example, a person who spends time and money watching a movie could use that time and money to address a real problem, such as crime or drug addiction. But, as so often been argued, this would impose unreasonable expectations on people and would ultimately create more harm than good. As such, while I accept that real groping is worse than virtual groping, I am not failing morally by taking time to address the virtual rather than the real in this essay.

It could also be objected that there is no legitimate reason to be worried about virtual groping on the obvious grounds that it is virtual rather than real. After all, when people play video games, they routinely engage in virtual violence against each other—yet this is not seen as a special problem (although virtual violence does have its critics). Put roughly, if it is fine to shoot another player in a game (virtual killing) it should be equally fine to grope another player in a game. Neither the killing nor groping are real and hence should not be taken seriously.

This objection does have some merit, but can be countered by considering an analogy to sports. When people are competing in boxing or martial arts, they hit each other and this is accepted because it is the purpose of the sport. However, it is not acceptable for a competitor to start pawing away at their opponent’s groin in a sexual manner (and not just because of the no hitting below the belt rules of boxing). Punching is part of the sport, groping is not. The same holds for video games. If a person is playing a combat video game that pits players against each other, the expectation is that they will be subject to virtual violence. They know this and consent to it by playing, just as boxers know they will be punched and consent to it. But, unless the players know and consent to playing a groping game, using the game mechanics to virtually grope other players would not be acceptable—they did not agree to that game.

Another counter is that while the virtual groping is not as bad as real groping, it can still harm the target of the groping. To use an analogy, being verbally abused over game chat is not as bad as having a person physically present engaging in such abuse, but it is still unpleasant for the target. Virtual groping is a form of non-verbal harassment, intended to get a negative reaction from the target and to make the gaming experience unpleasant. There is also the fact that being the victim of such harassment can rob a player of the enjoyment of the game—which is the point of playing. While it is not as bad as groping a player in a real-world game (which would be sexual assault), it has an analogous effect on the player’s experience.

It could be replied that a player should just be tough and put up with the abuse. This reply lacks merit and is analogous to saying that people should just put up with being assaulted robbed or spit on. It is the reply of an abuser who wants to continue the abuse while shifting blame onto the target.

While players are in the wrong when they engage in virtual groping, there is the question of what gaming companies should do to protect their customers from such harassment. They do have a practical reason to address this concern—players will tend to avoid games where they are subject to harassment and abuse, thus costing the gaming company money. They also have a moral obligation, analogous to the obligation of those in the real world who host an event. For example, a casino that allowed players to grope others with impunity would be failing in its obligation to its customers; the same would seem to hold for a gaming company operating a VR game.

Companies do already operate various forms of reporting, although their enforcement tends to vary. Blizzard, for example, has policies about how players should treat each other in World of Warcraft. This same approach can and certainly will be applied to VR games that allow a broader range of harassment, such as virtual groping.

Because of factors such as controller limitations, most video games do not have the mechanics that would allow much in the way of groping—although some players do work very hard trying to make that happen. While non-VR video games could certainly support things like glove style controllers that would allow groping, VR games are far more likely to support controllers that would allow players to engage in virtual groping behavior (something that has, as noted above, already occurred).

Eliminating such controller options would help prevent VR groping, but at the cost of taking away a rather interesting and useful aspect of VR controller systems. As such, this is not a very viable option. A better approach would be to put in the software limits on how players can interact with the virtual bodies of other players. While some might suggest a punitive system for when one player’s virtual hands (or groin) contacting another player’s virtual naught bits, the obvious problem is that wily gamers would exploit this. For example, if a virtual hand contacting a virtual groin caused the character damage or filed an automatic report, then some players would be trying their best to get their virtual groins in contact with other players’ virtual hands. As such, this would be a bad idea.

A better, but less than ideal system, would be to have a personal space zone around each player’s VR body to keep other players at a distance. The challenge would be working this effectively into the game mechanics, especially for such things as hand-to-hand combat. It might also be possible to have the software recognize and prevent harassing behavior. So, for example, a player could virtually punch another player, but not make grabbing motions on the target’s groin.

It should be noted that these concerns are about contexts in which players do not want to be groped; I have no moral objection to VR applications that allow consensual groping—which, I infer, will be very popular.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Advertisements

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. DH said, on November 3, 2016 at 11:50 am

    I think I disagree with your analogies here – this is not the same as a boxing game or another sports game. Those games, whether virtual or real, have sets of rules that specifically exclude things like groping (or biting off your opponent’s ear). This is a war game – and it is about violence and doing harm to your opponent. The Geneva Conventions notwithstanding, war has no rules. We can be horrified at the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib or Gitmo, but I would submit that we are acting no differently than the ways in which our enemies would. We do not videotape beheadings, but they do. All kinds of sexual atrocities are committed in an arena where there simply are no rules. The incidence of rape during the Vietnam war was extremely high.

    Don’t get me wrong – I am not condoning the behavior – only differentiating this situation from the kind of game you are trying to compare it to.

    There is a difference in “virtual groping” that may in fact allow for a significant amount of self-policing. In the real world, women are victimized by men because men are generally larger and stronger; women are less likely to be in a position to fight back. Those who have some training will often succeed in repelling this kind of advance.

    The physical playing field is leveled in virtual reality. A female player does not have to succumb to a male player because he is bigger and stronger – and has every capability to, as you suggest, “stick a fusion grenade to their face and laugh some more”.

    In real life, female soldiers know what they are facing and not only accept it, they learn to fight back with fire. If a war-game simulation is to be realistic, female players should do the same. Bullies behave the way they do because they believe they can get away with it. They need to be shown that they cannot.

    Unlike you, I don’t play online games as a rule – but I know that the online multiplayer world is one where if a person wants to gain points and power, they need to maintain a consistent identity. In keeping with my post on version I of this essay, I believe that it is the anonymity of screen-names and avatars that allows for this kind of abuse; as players get known (even by their avatars), I would hope that the gaming world will find a way to deal with it without asking Big Brother to build in limitations.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 3, 2016 at 6:30 pm

      That is certainly a reasonable response. As you say, perhaps playing a combat game should be seen as analogous to real-world combat: one must expect horror to occur; although one might condemn it morally.

      However, I would stick with my sports analogy: a person going into a mainstream video game to play is like a person going into a neighborhood softball game or 5K. While competition is expected, everyone is supposed to operate within the rules. It is, after all, just a game that is being played for fun. Allowing in abuse ruins the point of these games.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: