For some this topic may be empowering and for others it may be laborious, and this is certainly not just a case of men versus women. The lines are very much blurred when it comes to which gender takes what stance, but we cannot ignore the fact that women’s rights in VR are being shouted from the rooftops. But is this just a status quo that has bled over from sexism in the gaming industry?
It cannot be denied that the issue does need to be approached as there are problems such as harassment that can be taken to new levels with the help of head-mounted displays (HMD). It’s no secret that during in-game voice chats or with the use of feminine avatars that there is female-targeted harassment. However, as explained in a blog post by Suzanimator, there is a new dynamic when it comes to social VR.
This is certainly a problem that has bled over from the gaming industry, and with the arrival of VR people are now able to physically harass others by coming too close. Suzanne Leibrick, the writer of the blog, compares this with walking into a wall or falling off a cliff in VR: “Having someone else’s face directly in your personal bubble is disconcerting, and uncomfortable, especially if they’re the one instigating it. With a wall or a cliff, you stop, and then reassure yourself. When someone breaks your bubble, you don’t get that moment to pause.” Of course this isn’t a problem for women only, but it can be slightly disconcerting when “someone can put their face in your crotch, jerk off with their leap or kinect enabled hands, touch you inappropriately with controllers”.
As it has been said, this isn’t anything new as such, but what is different about this blog post is that there is a constructive argument, and this is the ideal way to handle issues involving women in VR. There is a selection of solutions to the problem, opening up for discussion and debate on how to get around the issue, rather than outlining the issue and asking for a shift in social construct. This can be described as empowering, and through these means is it justified to truly highlight sexism in VR.
Bouncing off the back of the previous point, there are numerous groups for women in VR, which have its positives and negatives. The positives are that it is always beneficial to have a collection of likeminded people to help grow creativity and productivity, and by having women come together and can come up with solutions as Suzanne did to create a healthier environment. However, the negative is that there can be a manifestation of unproductive conversation, and there is a fine line between identifying issues to solve them and rehashing over issues for the sake of it.
Sarah Jones, a woman who is starting out in the VR industry and is concentrating on education in VR specifically, actively promotes females in the industry, and believes that more panels should feature women: “The disadvantage is if not enough women are shown talking about it at events, conferences, etc. You have to see it to be it, so for girls growing up now, they need to see all the truly great work being made for VR and specifically the work where women are taking a lead role.”
The point that Jones makes is valid, but it is one that’s not exclusive to VR, and the worry is that it might be too early to call for a reform in gender balancing in an industry that is just starting. Even though VR is making a big impact, there is still some work to be done in terms of identifying key figures. There are women who are taking large strides and who are repeatedly showing their faces at events, such as Samantha Kingston who co-founded the VR marketing company Virtual Umbrella and has won awards for doing so, but there are also some women in VR who would prefer to get on with creating VR and wouldn’t want to stand up on a stage.
If a panel doesn’t feature a woman it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a slight against the gender. One group called SH//FT (Shift) has taken a strong stance on this topic, understandably so as the whole organisation is based on this topic, and says that before VR can happen there needs to be equality. This, relating to the previous point, is an extreme statement that proves more idealistic than realistic – or fair. VR is an industry that has been made out of passion, strong community, and vision of a more open future, and at this point it cannot be said that certain groups are denied of being a part of its growth as more people means more chance of success.
VR needs and takes on talent – not gender, race, or ability. Sexism cannot be ignored in any industry, especially with some forseeable issues that may occur in VR, but poking holes with little intention to take action to patch them up will only add weight to the pressure VR is handling trying to break through into the mainstream. Before VR can happen there needs to be unbiased support for the community as a whole.