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Virtual Cheating V: Virtual People

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on June 30, 2017

In this last in the virtual cheating series, the focus of the discussion is on virtual people. The virtual aspect is easy enough to define—these are entities that exist entirely within the realm of computer memory and do not exist as physical beings in that they lack bodies of the traditional sort. They are, of course, physical beings in the broad sense, existing as data within physical memory systems.

An example of such a virtual being is a non-player character (NPC) in a video game. These coded entities range from enemies that fight the player to characters that engage in the illusion of conversation and interaction. As it now stands, these NPCs are quite simple—although players often have very strong emotional responses and even (one-sided) relationships with them. Bioware, for example, excels at creating NPCs that players get very involved with and their games often feature elaborate relationship and romance systems.

While these simple coded entities are usually designed to look like and imitate the behavior of people, they are obviously not people. They cannot even pass a basic Turning test. They are, at best, the illusion of people. As such, while humans could become emotionally attached to these virtual entities, it would be impossible to cheat with them. Naturally, a human could become angry with how involved their partner is with video games, but that is another matter.

As technology improves, the virtual people will become more and more person-like. As with the robots discussed in the previous essay, if a virtual person were a person, then cheating would be potentially possible. Also as with the discussion of robots, there could be degrees of virtual personhood, thus allowing for degrees of cheating. Since virtual people are essentially robots in the virtual world, the discussion of robots in that essay would apply analogously to the virtual robots of the virtual world. There is, however, one obvious break in the analogy: unlike robots, virtual people lack physical bodies. This leads to the obvious question of whether a human can virtually cheat with a virtual person or if cheating requires a physical sexual component.

While, as discussed in a previous essay, there is a form of virtual sex that involves physical devices that stimulate the sexual organs, this is not “pure” virtual sex. After all, the user is using a VR headset to “look” at the partner, but the stimulation is all done mechanically. Pure virtual sex would require the sci-fi sort of virtual reality of cyberpunk—a person fully “jacked in” to the virtual reality so all the inputs and outputs are essentially directly to and from the brain. The person would have a virtual body in the virtual reality that mediates their interaction with that world, rather than having crude devices stimulating their physical body.

Assuming the technology is good enough, a person could have virtual sex with a virtual person (or another person who is also jacked into the virtual world). On the one hand, this would obviously not be sex in the usual sense—those involved would have no physical contact. This would avoid many of the usual harms of traditional cheating—STDs and pregnancies would not be possible (although sexual malware and virtual babies might be possible). This does, of course, leave open the door for accusations of emotional infidelity.

On the other hand, if the experience is indistinguishable from the experience of physical sex, then it could be argued that the lack of physical contact is irrelevant. At this point, the classic problem of the external world becomes relevant. The gist of this problem is that because I cannot get outside of my experiences to “see” that they are really being caused by external things that seem to be causing them, I can never know if there is really an external world. For all I know, I am dreaming or already in a virtual world. While this is usually seen as the nightmare scenario in epistemology, George Berkeley embraced this view in his idealism—he argued that there is no metaphysical matter and that “to be is to be perceived.” On his view, all that exists are minds and within them are ideas. Crudely put, Berkeley’s reality is virtual and God is the server.

So, if cheating is defined such that it requires physical sexual activity, knowing whether a person is cheating or not would require solving the problem of the external world. And there would be the possibility that there never has been any cheating since there might be no physical world. If sexual activity is defined in terms of the behavior and sensations without references to a need for physical systems, then virtual cheating would be possible—assuming the technology can reach the required level.

While this discussion of virtual cheating is currently purely theoretical, it does provide an interesting way to explore what it is about cheating (if anything) that is wrong. As noted at the start of the series, many of the main concerns about cheating are purely physical concerns about STDs and pregnancy. These concerns are avoided by virtual cheating. What remains are the emotions of those involved and the agreements between them. As a practical matter, the future is likely to see people working out the specifics of their relationships in terms of what sort of virtual and robotic activities are allowed and which are forbidden. While people can simply agree to anything, there is the deeper question of the rational foundation of relationship boundaries. For example, whether it is reasonable to consider interaction with a sexbot cheating or elaborate masturbation. Perhaps Bill Clinton, with his inquiries into the definition of “sex” should be leading the discussion of this matter.


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Virtual Cheating III: “Robust” VR

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Relationships/Dating, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 26, 2017


As noted in previous essays, classic cheating involves sexual activity with a person while one is in a committed relationship that is supposed to exclude such activity. Visual VR can allow interaction with another person, but while such activity might have sexual content (such as nakedness and naughty talk) it would not be sexual activity in the usual sense that requires physical contact. Such behavior, as argued in the previous essay, might constitute a form of emotional infidelity—but not physical infidelity.

One of the iron laws of technology is that any technology that can be used for sex will be used for sex. Virtual reality (VR), in its various forms, is no exception. For the most part, VR is limited to sight and sound. That is, virtual reality is mostly just a virtual visual reality. However, researchers are hard at work developing tactile devices for the erogenous zones, thus allowing people to interact sexually across the internet. This is the start of what could be called “robust” VR. That is, one that involves more than just sight and sound. This sort of technology might make virtual cheating suitably analogous to real cheating.

As would be expected, most of the research has been focused on developing devices for men to use to have “virtual sex.” Going with the standards of traditional cheating, this sort of activity would not count as cheating. This is because the sexual interaction is not with another person, but with devices. The obvious analogy here is to with less-sophisticated sex toys. If, for example, using a vibrator or blow-up-doll by oneself does not count as cheating because the device is not a person, then the same should apply to more complicated devices, such as VR sex suits that can be used with VR sex programs. There is also the question of whether such activity counts as sex. On the one hand, it is some sort of sexual activity. On the other hand, using such a device would not end a person’s tenure as a virgin.

It is certainly worth considering that a user could develop an emotional relationship with their virtual sex partner and thus engage in a form of emotional infidelity. The obvious objection is that this virtual sex partner is certainly not a person and thus cheating would not be possible—after all, one cannot cheat on a person with an object. This can be countered by considering the classic epistemic problem of other minds. Because all one has to go on is external behavior, one never knows if the things that seem to be people really are people—that is, think and feel in the right ways (or at all). Since I do not know if anyone else has a mind as I do, I could have emotional attachments to entities that are not really people at all and never know that this is the case. As such, I could never know if I was cheating in the traditional sense if I had to know that I was interacting with another person. As might be suspected, this sort of epistemic excuse (“baby, I did not know she was a person”) is unlikely to be accepted by anyone (even epistemologists). What would seem to matter is not knowing that the other entity is a person, but having the right (or rather wrong) sort of emotional involvement. So, if a person could have feelings towards the virtual sexual partner that they “interact with”, then this sort of behavior could count as virtual cheating.

There are also devices that allow people to interact sexually across the internet; with each partner having a device that communicates with their partner’s corresponding devices. Put roughly, this is remote control sex. This sort of activity does avoid many of the possible harms of traditional cheating: there is no risk of pregnancy nor risk of STDs (unless one is using rented or borrowed equipment). While these considerations do impact utilitarian calculations, the question remains as to whether this would count as cheating or not.

On the one hand, the argument could be made that this is not direct sexual contact—each person is only directly “engaged” with their device. To use an analogy, imagine that someone has (unknown to you) connected your computer to a “stimulation device” so that every time you use your mouse or keyboard, someone is “stimulated.” In such cases, it would be odd to say that you were having sex with that person. As such, this sort of thing would not be cheating.

On the other hand, there is the matter of intent. In the case of the mouse example, the user has no idea what they are doing and it is that, rather than the remote-control nature of the activity, that matters. In the case of the remote-control interaction, the users are intentionally engaging in the activity and know what they are doing. The fact that is happening via the internet does not matter. The moral status is the same if they were in the same room, using the devices “manually” on each other. As such, while there is not actual physical contact of the bodies, the activity is sexual and controlled by those involved. As such, it would morally count as cheating. There can, of course, be a debate about degrees of cheating—presumably a case could be made that cheating using sex toys is not as bad as cheating using just body parts. I will, however, leave that to others to discuss.

In the next essay I will discuss cheating in the context sex with robots and person-like VR beings.


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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.


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Gaming & Groping I: Motivations

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2016

On the positive side, online gaming allows interaction with gamers all over the world. On the negative side, some gamers are horrible. While I have been a gamer since the days of Pong, one of my early introductions to “the horrible” was on Xbox live. In a moment of deranged optimism, I hoped that chat would allow me to plan strategy with my team members and perhaps make new gamer friends. While this did sometimes happen, the dominate experience was an unrelenting spew of insults and threats between gamers. I solved this problem by clipping the wire on a damaged Xbox headset and sticking the audio plug into my controller—the spew continued, but had nowhere to go.

There is an iron law of technology that any technology that can be misused will be misused. There are also specific laws that fall under this general law. One is the iron law of gaming harassment:  any gaming medium that allows harassment will be used to harass. While there have been many failed attempts at virtual reality gaming, it seems that it might become the new gaming medium. In any case, harassment in online VR games is already a thing. Just as VR is supposed to add a new level to gaming, it also adds a new level to harassment—such as virtual groping. This is an escalation over the harassment options available in most games. Non VR games are typical limited to verbal harassment and some action harassment, such as the classic tea bagging. For those not familiar with this practice, it is when one player causes their character to rapidly repeat crouch on top of a dead character. The idea is that the players is repeatedly slapping their virtual testicles against the virtual corpse of a foe. This presumably demonstrates contempt for the opponent and dominance on the part of the bagger. As might be imagined, this act speaks clearly about a player’s mental and moral status.

Being a gamer and a philosopher, I do wonder a bit about the motivations of those that engage in harassment and how their motivation impacts the ethics of their behavior. While I will not offer a detailed definition of harassment, the basic idea is that it requires sustained abuse. This is to distinguish it from a quick expression of anger.

In some cases, harassment seems to be motivated primarily by the enjoyment the harasser gets from getting a response from their target. The harasser is not operating from a specific value system that leads them to attack certain people; they are equal opportunity in their attacks. Back when I listened to what other gamers said, it was easy to spot this sort of person—they would go after everyone and tailor their spew based on what they seemed to believe about the target’s identity. As an example, if the harasser though their target was African-American, they would spew racist comments. As another example, if the target was the then exceedingly rare female gamer, they would spew sexist remarks. As a third example, if the target was believed to be a white guy, the attack would usually involve comments about the guy’s mother or assertions that the target is homosexual.

While the above focuses on what a person says, the discussion also applies to the virtual actions in the game. As noted above, some gamers engage in tea-bagging because that is the worst gesture they can make in the game. In games that allow more elaborate interaction, the behavior will tend to be analogous to groping in the real world. This is because such behavior is the most offensive behavior possible in the game and thus will create the strongest reaction.

While a person who enjoys inflicting this sort of abuse does have some moral problems, they are probably selecting their approach based on what they think will most hurt the target rather than based on a commitment to sexism, racism or other such value systems. To use an obvious analogy, think of a politician who is not particularly racist but is willing to use this language in order to sway a target audience.

There are also those who engage in such harassment as a matter of ideology and values. While their behavior is often indistinguishable from those who engage in attacks of opportunity, their motivation is based on a hatred of specific types of people. While they might enjoy the reaction of their target, that is not their main objective. Rather, the objectives are to express their views and attack the target of their hate because of that hate. Put another way, they are sincere racists or sexists in that it matters to them who they attack. To use the analogy to a politician, they are like a demagogue who truly believes in their own hate speech.

In terms of virtual behavior, such as groping, these people are not just using groping as a tool to get a reaction. It is an attack to express their views about their target based on their hatred and contempt. The groping might also not merely be a means to an end, but a goal in itself—the groping has its own value to them.

While both sorts of harassers are morally wrong, it is an interesting question as to which is worse. It could be argued that the commitment to evil of the sincere harasser (the true racist or sexist) make them worse than the opportunist. After all, the opportunist is not committed to evil views, they just use their tools for their amusement. In contrast, the sincere harasser not only uses the tools, but believes in their actions and truly hates their target. That is, they are evil for real.

While this is very appealing, it is worth considering that the sincere harasser has the virtue of honesty; their expression of hatred is not a deceit.  To go back to the politician analogy, they are like the politician who truly believes in their professed ideology—their evil does have the tiny sparkle of the virtue of honesty.

In contrast, the opportunist is dishonest in their attacks and thus compound their other vices with that of dishonesty. To use the politician analogy, they are like the Machiavellian manipulator who has no qualms about using hate to achieve their ends.

While the moral distinctions between the types of harassers is important, they generally do not matter to their targets. After all, what matters to (for example) a female gamer who is being virtually groped while trying to enjoy a VR game is not the true motivation of the groper, but the groping. Thus, from the perspective of the target, the harasser of opportunity and the sincere harasser are on equally bad moral footing—they are both morally wrong. In the next essay, the discussion will turn to the obligations of gaming companies in regards to protecting gamers from harassment.


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