Exploring The Ethics of Virtual Reality
Recently, we explored loneliness in the smart city of the future. Now it’s time to examine the epidemic of social isolation that could be exacerbated as we move into a more virtual world, and the ethical matters that may arise from the rise of metarealities.
Clearly, the image of us all plugged into the Matrix, growing obese alone in our homes, is not a desirable one. We already have people addicted to video games; surely, virtual reality is only going to make things worse, right?
Before we go too far down the rabbit hole, it’s clear we need to address this, and other pressing ethical considerations around the use of VR.
In normal life, if you’re starting to feel uncomfortable with a VR experience, you can simply remove your headset. Easy. But what happens if somebody starts using virtual reality as an instrument of torture? Anyone who has experienced horror VR can tell you quite how realistic and disturbing it can be. The psychological effects of being stuck in a terrifying virtual world could be devastating. Rather than just threatening someone’s family, a torturer could simulate exactly what they plan to do to your family, and make you watch it, on repeat.
Though some cases like this would probably violate the Geneva Convention, and should clearly not be used for military purposes, we need to consider how to regulate and prosecute for its use by gangs, terrorists, and even abusers.
If we consider it a real possibility that technology will continue to drive us further apart from one another, so we should consider it likely that people will find love in VR. This is all very well and good if we are talking about a metaverse populated by avatars of ourselves, in which real people from disparate parts of the globe can meet. In fact, that is kinda cute.
But what happens if you fall in love with a non-human character in virtual reality?
Recently, there’s been big news that men in Japan have recently been able to marry their favourite anime characters thanks to virtual reality. A virtual reality game called “Niizuma Lovely x Cation” allows players to create ‘meaningful’ relationships with virtual characters. The weddings were carried out by Hibiki Works, who developed the game. It’s pretty weird, but in all seriousness, where’s the harm?
Well, to return to our first point, there’s the issue of isolation. If people find themselves preferring the company of unreal characters, then this is the perfect recipe for total absorption into VR. And it’s not healthy. As a bit of fun, used in moderation, then that’s just entertainment. But when we are living in a society in which people are finding it hard to connect with each other anyway, the result of such relationships could isolate the socially-awkward even more. Those with mental illness might disappear altogether, unable to distinguish between the real and virtual world.
If anything goes in virtual reality, then people can enact their darkest fantasies with no repercussions. Like video games, taking out one’s aggression on assailants is pretty cathartic, but if we return to the idea that some people will begin finding it hard to distinguish between reality and the world inside the headset – we have a problem.
One issue that is under a lot of debate at the moment is the use of robots and virtual reality avatars to enable paedophiles and sexual aggressors to take out their urges in this way. There is the argument that it may help to curb the enactment of these dangerous behaviours in real life. But what if it does the opposite? What if there’s a gap in satisfaction in the virtual/robot experience that simply spurs that person on to close that gap with a real-life experience? An experience they have actually practiced.
Women have been reporting being sexually harassed by other players in virtual reality games. Despite being an avatar, the sense of violation feels no less real to these women and profoundly affects how people can enjoy their time in VR. At present, it is very difficult to police behaviour by players in virtual reality games, though we can anticipate that this will be sorted out as the technology progresses.
Nonetheless, women have long felt ostracised from the gaming world by the behaviour of some male players, not to mention by the strongly male focus of most games themselves. Unless we are able to level the playing field, making VR gaming a space where everybody feels welcome, then we will continue to suffer from inequality.
Virtual reality is growing in uptake, and the technology is advancing fast. However, it is clear that we need to carefully consider certain aspects of how virtual reality technology is used if it is to form a positive part of our everyday lives in future. Whilst the internet, for example, has allowed free speech in unprecedented ways, few would argue that it hasn’t created huge problems. As we advance our connected world into the virtual space, the ability to be fully embodied and immersed in another world must be regulated in a range of ways.
What ethical problems do you see as a concern with virtual reality? Do you know of any ways being used to combat these problems? Let us know on Twitter!