Can VR teach us how to deal with sexual harassment?



A movement led by survivors, public health experts and technologists is utilizing interactive technology to shift how people approach sexual misconduct

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Vantage Point

Through the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, I find myself in an industrial, light-strewn office space – a far cry from the windowless basement office I’m sitting in.

There are four “co-workers” with me – a woman, Rachel, and three guys – talking about an upcoming conference in Las Vegas. The conversation takes a locker room turn, with the men joking about afterparties, vodka and Jacuzzis. Rachel tries to bring the conversation back to her presentation. Suddenly the boss grabs her arm and says: “Rachel, one very important note. Remember it’s a party, pack something … fitting.”

Rachel snatches her arm back and is noticeably uncomfortable. Suddenly, I receive a text message from my co-worker Chris on a virtual cellphone I’m holding (actually the VR controller). He’s noticed Rachel’s discomfort and asks: “So that just happened. Should we say something?”

This scenario is part of a corporate sexual harassment training program called Vantage Point, created by the entrepreneur Morgan Mercer, a two-time survivor of sexual violence. It uses the immersive properties of VR to place people directly into scenes that illustrate the subtleties of grooming, harassment and discrimination in a visceral and interactive way.

At a time of #MeToo, Mercer is hoping human resources departments will stop seeing sexual harassment training as a box-ticking exercise and start seeking real results.

Research indicates that people who go through virtual reality training – as opposed to videos, PowerPoint or in-person seminars – retain significantly more information.

“We want to make it as immersive as possible – because the closer you can get to actual embodiment of the character, the more likely your response will reflect what you would do in a real-life situation,” Mercer said.

In the case of the aforementioned “should we say something?” question, there were four possible responses to choose from. The answers are ranked from best to worst, with the best answer being “We should ask how she’d like to handle it”, followed by “We should report this to HR”.

Depending on how you respond to the multiple-choice questions sent via text, the narrative branches in different directions – either escalating or de-escalating. Repeated wrong answers are met with “empathy training” in the form of a phone call where Mercer explains where you slipped up.

The training program – designed for both men and women – covers three “modules”: bystander intervention (which I did), identification of sexual harassment and learning to respond to harassment when it happens to you.

“We’re trying to teach communal accountability. It’s not enough to say: ‘I didn’t sexually harass anyone; my hands are clean,’” Mercer said. “If you see it, speak out. Either to the person doing it or the receiver of inappropriate attention.”

Mercer wants Vantage Point’s VR training to become the gold standard for companies and is drawing on scientific research to develop best practice guidelines. There are no existing standards – the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sets regulations, but only three states in the US require any sexual harassment training.

Vantage Point is currently carrying out pilot research with the first “bystander” module with the fintech startup Tala and the payroll platform Justworks, with plans to roll out the service by the end of the year.

In Chicago, gaming is used to start conversations with young people





A still from Bystander, a game where teenage players encounter four episodes of harassment and assault.


A still from Bystander, a game in which teenage players encounter four episodes of harassment and assault. Photograph: Ci3’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab

In the hopes of changing attitudes and behaviors that allow sexual misconduct to happen in wider society, others, from health professionals to indie game designers, are turning to another immersive technology – video games.

“When we first started talking about games and sexual assault, it just doesn’t sound right on the ear, but having this interactive space where you can explore an issue that’s slightly outside of yourself is really helpful,” said Melissa Gilliam, an adolescent obstetrician-gynecologist at the University of Chicago.

Gilliam has found video games can be a much-needed catalyst for conversations about these tough issues through work with her team at the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3), which she founded to study sexual and reproductive health problems, especially in underrepresented communities.

The center’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab (GCC) is currently researching the efficacy of Bystander, a comic book-style game in which teenage players encounter four episodes of harassment and assault, including teachers making inappropriate comments and feeling pressured to have sex with your partner.





A still from Bystander, a game where teenage players encounter four episodes of harassment and assault.


A still from Bystander, a game where teenage players encounter four episodes of harassment and assault. Photograph: Ci3’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab

Throughout the game, rape myths – such as: “I’m not the type of person this happens to” – are presented, and players must decide how to respond. There is no penalty for players who make the wrong choice in a given situation. They are simply retaught earlier lessons.

The episode outlines were developed through discussions with youth advisers, who also ensured the adult game designers accurately captured teen language.

“We saw where young people took it and they often were telling stories and events from their lives, and they said you finally gave us the space that enabled us to have these conversations,” said Gilliam. “It was almost as if the young people drove us to yes, you can deal with these issues in this context in this medium.”

The game was first implemented in two 12th-grade classrooms in November 2016. Of the 46 students who participated in the study, 97.6% found the game presented valuable information, which 60% said was personally relevant, according to the pilot study.

Researchers are analyzing data from the most recent implementation round, which brought the game to 1,000 students aged 14 to 18.





A still from Bystander, a game where teenage players encounter four episodes of harassment and assault.


A still from Bystander, a game where teenage players encounter four episodes of harassment and assault. Photograph: Ci3’s Game Changer Chicago Design Lab

Efforts to teach sexual assault and harassment prevention through games have largely been aimed at university students or as therapeutic tools for victims.

The University of Chicago team said its early research showed these interventions should be starting at an earlier age. “When we talk about intervening at the college age, we have to seriously consider that we’re perhaps four years or more too late,” said Jennifer Rowley, who oversaw implementation of Bystander at four Chicago high schools in the summer of 2017.

While students were initially skeptical about Bystander, Rowley said it quickly provided an opportunity for the teenagers to discuss sensitive issues for the first time, such as how they define consent. Rowley said it was also clear these things had been on their minds before.

“We saw 14-year-olds who had very formed opinions about sexual violence and harassment and what was appropriate and what wasn’t and who is to blame and who wasn’t,” Rowley said.

The four-day curriculum began with lessons by violence prevention educators and counselors from the Young Women’s Christian Association of Metropolitan Chicago (YWCA), who were also available to students who disclosed incidents of sexual harassment or assault.

These educators complimented lessons taught in the game, which is named after the bystander approach, a method of sexual harassment and assault prevention which gives the community, not just the victims, a role in preventing this behavior.

“Sexual harassment is a large enough cultural problem that we need a broad suite of interventions to tackle it in the coming years,” said Patrick Jagoda, who co-founded GCC with Gilliam and is a professor at the university’s English and cinema schools. “So for me, something like the bystander approach is a piece of a larger cultural puzzle. We’re not claiming the four episodes in the game are covering every topic in sexual violence and sexual harassment.”

The extensive research and development of the GCC stands in contrast to a smaller scale effort to capture sexual assault in a game by Nina Freeman, an indie game designer based in Seattle.

Freeman was a graduate student when in March 2015 she published a semi-autobiographical game about sexual assault, Freshman Year.

“This is my story and I hope it can inspire people to tell their stories if that’s empowering for them,” Freeman told the Guardian.




Nina Freeman and Laura Knetzger

A still from Freshman Year. Photograph: Nina Freeman and Laura Knetzger

The game’s format is typical of her work – artistic vignettes loosely depicting personal experiences. The game takes only a few minutes to play, but in that short time, the eerie music and lush colors transport the player past their computer screen into the shoes of a college student whose fun conversation with a friend turns dark.

With the help of two collaborators, Freeman evokes an atmosphere that is surreal yet anchored by concrete details. The most concrete being that no matter what decision the player makes in the game, which is still available to play online, the result is the same.

Freeman said she received almost universal positive feedback to Freshman Year, but emphasized she was trying to capture a personal experience and does not intend for the game to be a grand statement about sexual assault.

“I know every woman’s experience is different depending on race and class and everything, and this is very specific to me,” Freeman said. “It’s not supposed to be an everywoman story.”

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