Ethics in Virtual Reality

 *This article was published in contribution to the new frontier of Intelligent Reality (IR). Click here to learn more about the 2022 IEEE 2nd International Conference on Intelligent Reality (ICIR).

Throughout history, technology and ethics have often had an uncomfortable relationship. Many engineers have regarded the ethical dimensions of their work as irrelevant; they were simply creating technology—how it was used was not their problem. While understandable, this is a naïve and increasingly untenable position to take. As noted by Brian Patrick Green, a Director at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, “The reason technology ethics is growing in prominence is that new technologies give us more power to act, which means that we have to make choices we didn't have to make before. While in the past our actions were involuntarily constrained by our weakness, now, with so much technological power, we have to learn how to be voluntarily constrained by our judgment: our ethics.”

While the nuances of what is considered good or bad can be challenging to define, there are some clear areas where common agreement on acceptable behavior benefits the system as a whole. Any such agreement has to address the fact that this is not about just one ethical issue, but rather a complex group of interrelated issues. Failure to create a viable, broad ethical framework has a detrimental effect over time, often leading to negative outcomes such as the exclusion of already marginalized groups.

In its broadest sense, ethics in virtual reality should address issues such as accountability, digital rights, normative behavior, personal freedoms and privacy for all participants. This includes both VR developers and virtual reality users.

But what is the state of ethics in virtual reality? Have we learned anything from the past? Read on to find out.

Current ethical issues in virtual environments

 There are some ethical issues that come down to moral judgment, but those can be deeply rooted in cultural traditions and regional societal norms, and therefore hard to apply in a universal manner. However, outside the realm of moral judgment, the current ethical issues in virtual environments are numerous. At the core of many of them is the simple fact that in virtual reality, or any immersive experience, we are dealing with a virtual world. Any virtual environment is an artificial creation, and is likely to reflect the biases and intrinsic beliefs of whoever created it. Unfortunately, this can often lead to the accidental, or intentional, exclusion of some groups. This can be a result of clear bias, such as virtual environments that incorporate offensive stereotypes or other polarizing material. Or it can be entirely accidental, such as a virtual environment that cannot be navigated by someone with impaired vision, color blindness, or a sensitivity to flashing lights.

One thing that makes ethical issues in virtual reality particularly intriguing is that virtual reality itself has been shown to be a powerful tool for generating empathy for ethical issues. Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated VR’s ability to help people understand and better relate to racism, genderism, ableism and many other forms of discrimination. From recreations of scenes of police brutality, to casual racism, to simply changing a users’ point of view to that of someone in a wheelchair, virtual reality has been successfully used to generate sympathy and understanding. However, researchers such as Erick Jose Ramirez have pointed out that this type of use case is, itself, fraught with ethical difficulties.

Beyond bias and exclusion, virtual reality raises many other potential concerns.

Consider user privacy. In a virtual environment, anything is possible. Like video games, users can be free to explore roles and behaviors that they would not pursue in the real world. But would you want whatever you choose to do made public for all to see? Even if your only weakness in virtual reality is an overwhelming desire to viciously attack watermelons with a katana, do you want that to become public knowledge? Furthermore, for any immersive environment to function, the system must track the movements of the user. But the way a person moves is a very unique identifier that could be used to identify someone even when they are otherwise anonymous. How is such data protected? Who owns it and who controls it? Currently, the answer is simply: not the user. And yet most users have no idea that such data is being harvested and shared, or how much value the data might have.

Virtual Reality is capable of trigger a wide range of emotional responses, from joy to sadness, elation to terror and confidence to fear. Games such as “Richie’s Plank” very realistically mimic the experience of being placed at a great height in unsafe surroundings. This is perfectly fine if it is consensual and the user is fully aware of what they are undertaking. However, the tech industry has a long history of embedding “easter eggs”— little surprises that can be discovered by users that are often not part of the application’s original function. Embedding “shock” easter eggs seems like an inevitability, but it could be highly unethical if the user is completely unprepared for such a thing. Along similar lines, it is as yet unclear to what extent a user can suffer the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from a VR experience. There have been multiple anecdotes from victims of harassment in VR who describe post-attack symptoms that are remarkably similar to PTSD. A closely related concern is that we still do not fully understand the short and long term impact VR can have on the human brain. Furthermore, there is already clear evidence of virtual reality’s ability to manipulate user behavior without the user’s knowledge or consent.

Other concerns include representation of marginalized groups, the potential for social isolation, over-reliance on fantasy interactions rather than real-world interactions, exploitation of VR replicas (sexual or otherwise) without the express permission of the person the replica is based on, virtual abuse, and new forms of virtual crime. While not technically a virtual reality experience, the once popular “Second Life” has been the venue for a wide array of unpleasant and unethical behavior.

Like many other technologies, virtual reality saw an increase in adoption with the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual environments can be very appealing when you are otherwise prevented from traveling. But increasing adoption by an ever broader audience is just yet another reason why the ethics of virtual reality need to be discussed.

Importance of a code of ethics for virtual reality

If there is one thing that has remained true about the internet for the past two decades, it is that no matter what you can think of, someone on the internet somewhere will have done it, documented it, and shared it with a group of like-minded people. This ranges from professional groups and political affiliations to hobbies, to fan sites for even the most obscure films, TV shows and actors, to an almost infinite array of other topics. Unfortunately, it also includes the nastier side of human nature, from blatant bigotry, to extremism, hate speech and so much more. While the merits and limitations of free speech can, and should, be debated, it is clearly unethical to welcome a user to a given virtual environment without at least preparing them for the type of material they are likely to encounter. Informed consent is a critical ethical consideration.

Another truism from the internet is that data is only as private as the weakest link in the chain, and there is almost always a weak link somewhere. Any meaningful attempt at ethical codes of conduct has to include consideration of data privacy.

Within the world of online video games, many developers have come to realize the value of “guard rails”. These are basic rules of conduct that attempt to inform players what is, and is not okay within the virtual game world they are playing in. Many video games continue to struggle with disruptive, and in some cases, highly toxic communities. It becomes easier to understand the challenges if you think of a game community as being just like a real-world community. When the community is very small and contains respected elders, few controls and guard rails are needed. The community can police itself and its members are closely connected to each other and share a sense of responsibility for the community. However, if a community expands to become a massive city, problems will start to arise. The idea of a city without a set of laws to govern people’s behavior is absurd. Not only are such laws needed, but there also needs to be a group (typically the police and justice system) responsible for enforcing those laws. When those systems collapse, so do the cities. Is it a surprise then that games with millions of players have issues with crime, hate speech, harassment and other negative behaviors? It certainly shouldn’t be.

And this is why a code of ethics is vital to the future of virtual reality, augmented reality and all types of extended reality. These new mediums present new opportunities and challenges. Without careful consideration, there is considerable potential for harm and negative outcomes. Ethical conduct and ethical considerations should be a fundamental consideration in the design and implementation of all virtual reality technology, not an afterthought.

While no formal code of ethics exists for virtual reality, researchers such as Michael Madary have published numerous suggestions on how to approach the subject. We would be wise to pay attention.

Ethical considerations for virtual technologies

Almost all meaningful discussion of the ethical considerations for virtual reality and extended reality have taken place in academia. Many of the key participants in the commercial sphere have yet to take any meaningful stance on ethical considerations and there has been no industry-wide agreement on what types of ethical consideration to consider. Games represent a significant percentage of all virtual reality experiences and VR technology sales. Unfortunately, the games industry has been slow to tackle the many types of ethical challenge that VR presents.

Groups such as IEEE have advocated for an increased focus on ethics in all aspects of technology, not just virtual reality, but progress has been slow.

As previously discussed, the ethical considerations for virtual technologies are wide ranging, and should encompass VR content as well as the experience. As people spend more and more time in a virtual world, interacting with both real humans and virtual humans, ethical concerns will continue to rise. Again, the fundamental challenge with virtual reality is virtual reality’s underlying essence: everything you see and experience isn’t real. No matter how uplifting or disturbing your desired experience, literally anything is possible in virtual reality. In addition to ethical issues, there is wide ranging potential to impact mental health either positively or negatively.

Ethical decision making should clearly be a foundational component in the development of any virtual reality experience, but as yet, the industry has been slow to acknowledge this.

How ethics can be included in virtual reality design

The ethical implications for virtual reality, augmented reality, and extended reality are clearly complex. Participants in a virtual space, virtual experience or other type of virtual world need confidence that the experience will be what they expect, and that the environment and other users that they meet will conform to reasonable normative behavior for that environment.

In the information technology industry, there is often a general assumption that technology can solve all problems. Inevitably, given its current popularity, this leads to artificial intelligence being suggested as a solution. In the case of ethics virtual reality, this is almost certainly not the place to start from. Artificial intelligence in its current form is simply incapable of the level of nuance and understanding required to meaningfully address the problem.

It is perhaps useful to consider the evolution of game design in the modern video game industry. Game design was once a relatively small component of the game development process. For most game companies today, it represents a significant percentage of their overall effort. Game design no longer just concerns itself with basic elements of gameplay, but increasingly concerns itself with a much broader array of topics, including the ethical aspects of gameplay. The games industry is also working to improve its notions of informed consent for players, making sure players know what type of experience they are signing up for.

Including ethics in virtual reality design requires informed conversation and research. Much of the existing body of academic research on technology and ethics can be applied. However, developers must take the time to educate themselves and seriously consider the ethical aspects of their work.

As an emerging technology area gaining considerable momentum, the future of virtual reality, augmented reality and extended reality looks bright. Novel integrations of AR and VR with robotics and remote presence provide tantalizing glimpses of an exciting future. But to reach that bright future, ethical scrutiny is essential. Ethics and informed consent must become a foundational component in the development of any virtual world experience.

2022 IEEE 2nd International Conference on Intelligent Reality (ICIR)

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