The Case for a Virtual Reality Code of Conduct

The ethical guide to the unreal universe couldn't come soon enough.

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If large pre-order demand and hype-suffused tech demo halls are any indication, 2016 is the year that virtual reality heats up from smoke to fire. Once we’re in the metaverse, will we behave ourselves? More than any medium before it, virtual reality has the potential for mind- and behavior-altering experiences, which is why Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger, techno-philosophers at Germany’s Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, are urgently calling for a code of VR conduct.

The proposed code prompted a mix of surprise and endorsement. There was shock that virtual reality can alter our behavior (“Researchers warn about psychological impact of virtual reality”) as well as tacit approval by way of summarizing the VR code (“Do We Need a Code of Conduct for Virtual Reality?”).

Madary and Metzinger’s argument, was published in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and A.I. in February. (A more recent press release appears to have sparked this current interest.) They build their code on a foundation of behavioral research. To the point that VR experiences can change human behavior, the authors outline that VR is unique:

…unlike other forms of media, VR can create a situation in which the user’s entire environment is determined by the creators of the virtual world, including “social hallucinations” induced by advanced avatar technology. Unlike physical environments, virtual environments can be modified quickly and easily with the goal of influencing behavior.

Anyone who tells you they know what is going to happen with VR is a liar. (For every Zuckerberg tossing a few cool billions at Oculus, there are also smart people who remember the first VR boom-bust cycle.) The authors recognize the unknowns of VR: “We simply do not know whether long-term immersion poses a threat for mental health,” they write. But they do know, because of history, that human behaviors are more plastic than we’d like to think. Look at the Milgram experiments, the German researchers say, where subjects were surprisingly copacetic with administering (fake) shocks to other people in experiments.

Which brings us to how people will use — and be changed by — VR. Madary and Metzinger write:

Once the technology [is] available to the general public for entertainment (and other) purposes, individuals will have the option of spending extended periods of time immersed in VR – in a way this is already happening with the advent of smartphones, social networks, increasing time online, etc. Some of the risks and ethical concerns that we have already encountered in the early days of the internet will reappear, though with the added psychological impact enabled by embodiment and a strong sense of presence.

Again, history risks repetition. The authors cite a multi-user dungeon, or MUD (the early ‘90s text-based precursor to World of Warcraft), in which a player named Mr. Bungle harassed others with accounts of sexual violence. The prospect of simulated rape in virtual reality, given where VR sex is now, is rightly terrifying.

Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger's proposed VR code.

Michael Madary and Thomas Metzinger, Frontiers in Robotics and AI

No less internet legends than Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn — the guys who invented the internet protocol part of the IP address — founded the Internet Society in 1992, complete with a code of ethics. It was a prescient move, but one that couldn’t forestall harassment and cyberstalking on Twitter or anywhere else. If people can abuse it, they will — the same goes for VR, which is why starting the conversation now, before it conquers our faces, is crucial.

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