Social Science

Why an assault on your VR body can feel so real

Our brains are easily fooled into taking ownership of a virtual body, decades of psychology research shows

June 29, 2022
Digital illustration of a girl with VR goggles touching something in front of her
In virtual reality we immerse ourselves in a new world and a new body, opening up new possibilities for exploration,  discovery — and potential harm. [Credit: Kurniaindah, Vecteezy.com | Free license]

In between waves of zombie attacks, Jordan Belamire’s teammate turned on her. She was playing a multiplayer virtual reality game in 2016 with her husband and brother-in-law when another teammate — a stranger — approached her and began to grope her virtual body. 

She yelled at him to stop and tried to run away, but he pursued her. “Emboldened, he even shoved his hand toward my virtual crotch and began rubbing,” Belamire wrote in a post on Medium.com. “The public virtual chasing and groping happened a full week ago and I’m still thinking about it.” Her post, titled “My First Virtual Reality Groping”, was shared widely on social media in 2016, sparking a conversation about sexual harassment in virtual reality games.

This year Belamire’s story made the rounds again after a beta tester of Meta’s Horizon Worlds platform reported being groped by another user late last year. In response Meta announced that it would be instituting a four foot personal boundary around each player’s avatar.

But in many spaces of the internet, mention of “virtual groping” has been met with scorn and ridicule. Any given Reddit thread on the topic will likely be flooded with comments belittling the idea. Commenters often bring up non-VR games like Halo and Call of Duty — where players have a longstanding tradition of simulating sex acts on the avatars of defeated enemies — to argue that cases like Belamire’s weren’t any different. “I wanna know what kinda VR setup they have that lets them feel groping,” wrote one Twitter user.

Regardless of what is considered acceptable in non-VR games, two decades of research show that VR affects us differently. VR is designed to dupe our senses, and psychologists have repeatedly shown that it doesn’t take much to trick our brains into thinking of a virtual body as our own — and to fear for its safety. Experts say that this element of immersion adds new possibilities to the ongoing problem of online harassment and presents challenges for moderation as we establish social norms in virtual spaces.

When you stand in front of a mirror and move your body, you watch your reflection do the same. “Our whole lives, whenever we’ve done that, it’s been our body,” explains Mel Slater, who researches the psychology of virtual environments at the University of Barcelona. But VR opens a new set of possibilities. As a participant in one of Slater’s VR experiments, you would likely begin by standing in front of a simulated mirror and watching your avatar — which may look very different from your real body — obey your brain’s commands.

From there, as far as your brain is concerned, “the overwhelming evidence is that this [avatar] is your body,” Slater says. “It’s not that you believe it. Well, it’s impossible to describe. You have to experience it. You have this very strong feeling, ‘this is my body,’” he says.

This illusion is what psychologists call “embodiment”, and it’s part of what makes VR so immersive. The virtual environment doesn’t have to look particularly realistic for this to happen, Slater says, which is important since the animation style of VR can range from cartoonish to uncanny valley to realistic. For you to feel a sense of ownership over your virtual body, it just needs to move along with your real one, matching what your brain expects to see, says Sofía Seinfeld, who researches perception and embodiment within VR at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia.

At the heart of embodiment research is a classic psychology experiment from 1998 that first demonstrated what is known as the rubber hand illusion. Researchers had each participant lay their left arm on a table, hidden from view by a screen. Visible instead was a life-size rubber arm. The researcher then stroked both the real and fake hand with paint brushes in total synchrony. Since the sensation matched what they saw happening to the rubber hand, participants reported feeling like the rubber hand was their own.

Something similar happens when we become embodied in VR avatars, and it seems that these experiences can impact how we behave and think. In a 2018 study by Seinfeld and her former colleagues at the University of Barcelona, perpetrators of domestic abuse experienced a VR scene of abuse from within the body of a woman. Prior to the VR experience, perpetrators were less capable of identifying fear on women’s faces than non-perpetrators, often classifying fearful expressions as happy. After being embodied in a female victim, the perpetrators were better able to recognize those fearful expressions for what they were. 

Careful VR interventions may also be able to decrease our unconscious biases. Last year Slater’s team experimented with a VR intervention where U.S. police officers witnessed a racially abusive interrogation from the body of either a white onlooker or the Black suspect. Three weeks later the officers who experienced the Black man’s perspective were more sympathetic toward another Black suspect than those who viewed the interrogation as an onlooker.

Clearly VR is a powerful tool that allows us to step into another person’s shoes. But along with the possibilities for good are possibilities for harm, as virtual embodiment can open doors to traumatic events in digital spaces. When we’re embodied in a virtual avatar, we will fear for that body’s safety even if we know we can’t be hurt, says Rebecca Fribourg, who researches embodiment in VR at Centrale Nantes, an engineering school in France. In fact, she adds, scientists can determine how strong the embodiment illusion is by how strongly people react to a threat against their virtual body.

And repeated virtual threats do not pull participants out of the illusion, Fribourg says. In a study published last July, Fribourg and her colleagues repeatedly subjected participants to the same virtual threat — a machine malfunctioning and crushing their hands — but their sense of embodiment still didn’t decrease. “I was surprised,” Fribourg says. “We actually thought that they would stop reacting, but people were still reacting a lot,” she says.

The threat of harm doesn’t have to involve violent hand crushing for us to react with alarm. Another study from Slater’s lab, from 2010, showed that the closer an unknown avatar approached participants in VR, the more their nervous systems became aroused for a fight-or-flight response.

“If you don’t know who the person is who is invading,” Slater says, then “this is a very strong cue to you that something bad is happening.”

So to return to the case of virtual groping, even if you can’t feel the virtual hand grabbing your virtual body, you can still feel the alarm that comes with this violation and react accordingly. “It’s a reflex reaction, just as you would try to protect your own body if someone tries to harass you or harm you in the street,” says Seinfeld.

The threat of harassment is especially present for women, ethnic minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community, who are often singled out for harassment in gaming spaces in general, says Guo Freeman, who studies social dynamics in VR at Clemson University’s GAME Lab. In a study published in April, Freeman interviewed 30 diverse VR users about their experiences with in-game harassment. For many of the players she interviewed, coping with the harassment meant disengaging with social VR spaces altogether.

“All of a sudden, it’s like, well, why am I here? What am I doing here?” explains Robyn Smith, a VR blogger known online as RobynzReality, who was not involved in Freeman’s research. She describes being swarmed by other players when she enters public lobbies in VR, who hear her higher-pitched voice and start demanding, “Are you a girl? Oh my god, girls don’t play.” One of her first experiences with VR harassment happened in the game Hyper Dash, when her own teammates and their opponents surrounded her and backed her into a corner. 

It isn’t real life, but “you feel the same. You feel cornered,” she says. And while your first instinct may be to remove yourself from the situation by taking off your headset, asking victims of harassment to simply leave isn’t a solution to the problem, she says. “You have every right to be there as much as anyone else who purchased that hardware.”

Harassment driving players from the platform is especially unfortunate because VR can also be a very positive experience, Freeman says. Many LGBTQ+ VR users, especially transgender users, reported that VR can be great for exploring their gender presentation in a way that may not be possible in the real world. “It can become a very supportive social space for all types of marginalized users,” Freeman says. “We just need to figure out a way to mitigate those risks.”

Defining harassment in virtual spaces is an ongoing challenge for moderators, Freeman says. Much of the behavior in VR chat rooms wouldn’t be acceptable in the real world, but that doesn’t always make it harassment. One study participant told Freeman about having sticks thrown at them repeatedly upon entering a VR chat room. Was this harassment or just an annoyance, perhaps typical of a space with a lot of children and teenagers running around? In VR it can be difficult to tell, Freeman says.

“I think everyone has very different expectations of what should happen there,” says Freeman. Unlike most situations in real life, there isn’t a set of social norms guiding how everyone behaves and expects to interact with others, she says. “Because this environment is so new, people just don’t know yet.”

Clashing sets of social norms could explain why a gamer brought up in the culture of Call of Duty would balk at the idea that virtual harassment of another’s avatar is anything to be condemned. “It’s not that they’re bad people,” says VR-enthusiast Smith. “It’s just that they’ve grown up in this [non-VR] gaming culture where it’s accepted.”

But the research of embodiment is clear that there’s an important distinction between regular and VR gaming experiences. The virtual worlds of VR have the potential to affect the ways we think, feel and behave in a way that non-immersive games do not.

When Belamire first stepped into virtual reality that day back in 2016, she was entranced by how real it felt. At the top of the highest tower in the game, she looked down at the 100-foot drop below. Her fear of heights flared.

Later, after the groping, Belamire reflected on these moments side by side. “The virtual groping feels just as real,” she wrote. “Of course, you’re not physically being touched, just like you’re not actually one hundred feet off the ground, but it’s still scary as hell.”

About the Author

Allison Parshall

Allison Parshall is a multimedia science journalist with a background in cognitive science. She has also written for Quanta Magazine, Scientific American and Inverse and Scienceline. She holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Georgetown University and is finishing a master’s in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University.

Discussion

1 Comment

Marius Bollmus says:

I experienced this effect in Resident Evil 7 on PS VR. When I got a knofe shoved in my face, it was so awkward. Like you expect that you will feel, when the knife enters your face. It doesnt hurt obviously, but…like I said, it’s awkward as hell.

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