Gaming was once just Pacman chasing pixelated ghosts through a digital darkness but, now, as we tumble headlong into virtual realities, ethical voids are being filled by the same ghosts humanity created IRL.

As a kid I sank an embarrassing amount of time into World of Warcraft online, my elven ranger was named Vereesa Windrunner and rode a silver covenant hippogryph. (Tl;dr: I was a cool chick with a bow and arrow and a flying horse.)  

Once I came across two other players and we chatted – then they attacked, took all my things and left me for dead. I was mad because walking back to the nearest town without my trusty hippogryph would take a good half hour. 

Gamers call this behaviour “griefing”; using the game in unintended ways to destroy or steal things another player values – even when that is not the objective. It’s pointless, it’s petty, in other words it’s being a huge jerk online. 

The only way to cope with that big old dose of griefing was rolling back from my screen, turning off the console and making a cup of tea.  

But gaming is changing and virtual reality means logging off won’t be so simple – as exciting and daunting as that sounds. 

500 years ago, or whenever Pacman was invented, gaming largely amounted to you being a little dot moving around the screen, eating slightly smaller dots, and avoiding slightly larger dots. 

Game developers have endlessly fought to create more realistic, more immersive, and more genuine experiences ever since. 

Gaming now stands as its own art, even inspiring seriously good television (try not to cry watching Last of Us) – and the long awaited leap into convincing, powerful VR (virtual reality) is now upon us. 

But in gaming’s few short decades we have already begun to realise the ethical dilemmas that come with a digital avatar – and the new griefing is downright criminal.

Last year’s Dispatches investigation found virtual spaces were already rife with hate speech, sexual harassment, paedophilia, and avatars simulating sex in spaces accessible to children. 

In the Metaverse also – which Mark Zuckerberg hopes we will all inhabit – people allege they were groped and abused, sexually harrassed and assaulted.

In one shocking experience a woman even claimed she was “virtually gang raped” while in the Metaverse.

So how can we better prepare for the ethical problems we are going to encounter as more people enter this brave new world of VR gaming? How will the lines between fantasy and reality blur when we find ourselves truly positioned in a game? What does “griefing” become in a world where our online avatars and real lives overlap? And why should we trust the creepy tech billionaires who are crafting this world with our safety and security?

The Ethics Centre’s Senior Philosopher and avid gamer Dr Tim Dean spent his formative years playing (and being griefed) in the game, Ultima Online – so he’s just the right person to ask.

Let the games begin

VR still requires cumbersome headsets. The most well known, which was bought by Facebook, is called Oculus but there are others. 

Once you’re strapped in, you can turn your head left and right and you see the expansive computer generated landscape stretching out before you. 

Your hands are the fiery gauntlets of a wizard, your feet their armoured boots, you might have more rippling abs than you’re used to – but you get the point, you’re seeing what your character sees.

The space between yourself and your avatar quickly closes.

Tim says, there is that kind of “verisimilitude” which feels like you’re right there – for better or for worse.

“If you have a greater sense of identity with your avatar, it magnifies the feelings of violation,” he said.

Videogames were once an escape from reality, a way to unshackle to the point you can steal a car, rob a bank and even kill, but Dean suggests this escapism creates new moral quandaries once we become our characters.

“A fantasy can give you an opportunity to get some satisfaction where you might not otherwise have,” he said.

“But also, if your desires are unhealthy – if you want to be violent, if you want to take things from people, if you enjoy experiencing other people’s suffering – then a fantasy can also allow you to play that out.”

Make your own rules

Dean has hope, despite the grim headlines, saying “norms emerge” in these virtual moral voids and norms begin to form between users  – or as they used to be called; “people”.

“Where there are no explicit top down norms that prevent people from harming or griefing other people, sometimes bottom up community norms emerge,” he said.

Dean’s PhD is about the birth of norms: the path from a lawless, warring chaos to self-regulating society because humans learned about the impacts they were having on one another.

It sounds promising, but when Metaverse headsets begin at $1500 you’ll quickly realise the gates to the future open only to the privileged, often wealthy white men become the early adopters.

Mark Zuckerberg seems to have the same concerns.

Metaverse proposed a solution in the form of a virtual “personal bubble” to protect people from groping… but aside from feeling very lame to walk around in a big safety bubble, it demonstrates that there’s no attempt to curb the bad behaviour in the first place.  

The solution, in the real world, to combat abuse has typically come in the form of including people from diverse backgrounds, more women, more people of colour, all sharing in the power structure.

For virtual reality – now is the time to have that discussion, not after everyone has a horror story. 

Dean thinks there are a few big questions yet to be answered:

Will people, en masse, act horribly in the virtual world?

How do you change behaviour in that world without imposing oppressive rules or… bubbles? Who gets to decide what those rules are? Would we be happy with the rules Meta comes up with? At least in a democracy, we have some power to choose who makes up the rules. That’s not the case with most technology companies.

And how does behaviour in the virtual world translate to our behaviour outside of the virtual world? 

Early geeks hoped the internet would be a virtual town square with people sharing ideas – a vision that missed racist chatbots, revenge porn and swatting.

Dean hopes the VR landscape might offer a clean slate, a chance at least to learn from the past and increase people’s capacity for empathy. 

“We can literally put on goggles and walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” he said.

So maybe there’s hope yet.