At the annual Game Developers Conference (GDC), Minority Media’s Patrick Harris received tremendous fanfare for his presentation on mitigating abuse in MMOs through gameplay mechanics that would create “precautions and punitive measures for damaging behaviors within [virtual reality].” Although his intent was quite noble, the tactics Harris employed to better understand harassment in a VR context are shockingly vile:
As part of his experiment to figure out the depths of VR harassment, the designer played his MMO prototype with an unsuspecting woman. Their gameplay session was shown to the audience with a short video that left the room in stunned, dismayed silence. He described the shame he felt as he pushed the game’s immersive capabilities to their limits, making obscene gestures with a “phallic” object, invading his fellow player’s personal space and ultimately trying to make her feel as uncomfortable as possible — with great success. All of this was shown to the audience, too, as the video cut between the woman’s palpable discomfort and Harris’ increasingly disturbing victimizing tactics.
To anyone familiar with scientific research, this “experiment”—I hesitate to use Harris’ language—is immediately identifiable as unethical: there was no informed consent, to say the least, nor were any precautions taken to protect this woman from harm. Instead, Harris actively and intentionally caused harm:
Afterward, Harris apologized profusely for the way he acted during the game session — he was so stricken by how real the experience felt, he said, that he immediately felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. Even worse, according to the woman he played against — and harassed in the name of research — it was “a damaging experience.”
In a photo of his presentation, the developer even refers to himself as “mean-spirited”:
Harassment in VR social spaces:
Patrick Harris [@Doctor_Fatty] experiment harassed user.#joVRnalism#VRDC #GDC16 pic.twitter.com/l72IWNNK5S
— JOVRNALISM (@jovrnalism) March 15, 2016
The feedback Harris has received on Twitter from other developers has so far been overwhelmingly positive—as his ultimate aim, of course, is to discourage harassment in these spaces. Only a few have taken issue with his approach.
I’m disappointed to see others applaud Harris for what, from where I’m standing, does a gross injustice to GDC and to the developer community at large—not to mention the community of researchers, industry professionals, and journalists who care about the prevention of harassment in online spaces. Further, it is absolutely incorrect to refer to Harris’ approach—as Polygon does—as “faux” abuse.
Perpetrating harassment is never an appropriate or ethical way to research online harassment. Full stop.