NEW YORK — Jordan Belamire has been sexually assaulted three times. Twice in real life, and once in virtual reality.
Belamire who goes by a pseudonym to protect her privacy, was playing a game called QuiVr on her brother-in-law’s HTC Vive VR system. She was shooting zombies with strangers in QuiVr’s multiplayer mode when another player began to virtually rub her chest.
“I’ve been groped in real life, once in a Starbucks in broad daylight. I know what it’s like to happen in person,” Belamire, 30, told CNNMoney. “The shock and disgust I felt [in QuiVr] was not too far off from that.”
Another user, BigBro442 had apparently caught on that she was a woman because her mic was on and her voice was streaming through to the virtual world.
Belamire yelled “Stop!” as BigBro442 grabbed her. That made things worse.
“He chased me around, making grabbing and pinching motions near my chest. Emboldened, he even shoved his hand toward my virtual crotch and began rubbing,” she wrote in a Medium post about the incident last week.
Belamire’s post caught a lot of attention online, the most disturbing being strangers who told her she was making a lot of fuss about nothing.
“Please explain how someone can be assaulted in any form using VR. This seems to be someone whining just to whine” was a common refrain on Twitter. Belamire temporarily suspended her Twitter account as a result.
Belamire said she’s “more disturbed by the backlash than the VR incident itself.”
“It’s not real, therefore it’s OK; this is the amoral substructure of gaming culture. This, far more than anonymity, is the source of much gender and racial harassment on the internet,” wrote sociologist and gaming critic Katherine Cross in a paper titled “Ethics for Cyborgs.”
Other women have described similar experiences while immersed in foreign virtual lands. One woman wrote about her experience being groped virtually last March: “I still tensed up and felt uncomfortable, and removing the headset didn’t take that feeling away.”
No, sexual assault in the virtual world isn’t the same as in real life — but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effect. Video games are largely developed by men, which makes it less likely that they’re designed with a woman in mind.
Entrepreneur and activist Cindy Gallop likened it to Twitter’s trolling problem. “Men in tech #vr, don’t make the mistake Twitter did. DESIGN THIS SHIT OUT RIGHT NOW,” she tweeted.
“The men that make these games genuinely don’t seem to understand that it’s sexual assault,” game developer Brianna Wu told CNNMoney. “Women barely work on these teams, so there’s no voice of conscience.”
Wu cited Playstation VR’s Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 as an example; the game lets users grope a bikini-clad virtual woman who is protesting, glorifying sexual assault.
The Entertainment Software Rating Board assigns age and content ratings for video games, apps and games sold at retail, but it’s voluntary and isn’t required through virtual reality portals.
“No one wants to see the government regulate the game industry. But the truth is, VR is such a powerful experience, your brain feels like it’s real,” added Wu.
“Subjects sometimes feel as if the body that they see in front of them is their own,” write researchers Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.
Madary and Metzinger suggest that there needs to be a code of conduct in VR since its psychological effects are still unknown.
Indeed, Belamire told CNNMoney that the hand that stroked her felt “very lifelike. You can make the fingers move in really realistic ways.”
AltspaceVR, a VR chatroom, introduced a personal bubble feature as a means of combat harassment in the virtual world. If users enable it, others in the virtual world have to stay at least one foot away. Blueteak, the developer of QuiVr, said it was also rolling out this feature.
“It’s a gameplay solution to one problem. But we need industry standards,” said Wu.
Oculus, HTC and Microsoft did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Update: QuiVr’s developer responded to Belamire’s post by updating the game to prevent this. “Let’s make sure this never happens again,” he told CNNMoney. Read about his response here.