Trolling, Griefing, and Harassment in Virtual Worlds: What the Newer Social VR Platforms Are Doing to Combat It

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How do you deal with a troll? (image by Anaterate on Pixabay)

There was a particularly irritating troll at Alfy’s Voices of Sansar competition this past Saturday. Trying to find and mute her (currently the only tool available to us in Sansar) was an exercise in frustration, hovering my cursor over each avatar in the crowd watching the show until I found her. Gindipple has released some software that might help us the next time we get hit by a troll at an event:

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We’ve been pretty lucky in Sansar so far; we haven’t seen anything like the levels of trolling and harassment that occur in the more popular social VR spaces like VRChat and AltspaceVR. (VRChat, in particular, is infamous for its griefing.) But we Sansarians all know the onslaught of trolls is coming, and every social VR platform is going to have to come up with its own technical solutions to the problem of trolls.

So, how are the other social VR platforms dealing with this issue?

 

Sinespace

Sinespace has pretty limited options as well. You can basically report and ignore other avatars around you:

Sinespace Ignore and Report 3 14 May 2018.png

 

VRChat

VRChat is taking the most controversial step of banning new users from uploading avatars or worlds until certain (unspecified) conditions are met, and taking away such privileges from older users who misbehave:

Hello, VRChat! We’ve been working on some new “Trust” systems to help make VRChat a friendlier place. These systems will be used to help gate various features until users have proven themselves to be a friendly member of the community. One of the first parts of the Trust system is called “Content Gating”. This system is designed to reduce abusive or annoying behavior involving avatars or other content.

Here’s generally how it works. When a user first creates a new VRChat account, they will be unable to upload custom content like worlds or avatars. After spending some time in the app and having positive interactions with other users, they will eventually receive in-app and email notifications that their account has access to world and avatar creation capability. This time may vary from user to user depending on various factors.

If the new user chooses to spend time in VRChat behaving badly or maliciously against other users, they may lose the capability to upload content. They will receive a notification in-app and via email that they have lost access to content uploading. If they spend more time in the app and follow the Community Guidelines, then they will eventually regain access to these systems. Again, this time may vary depending on various factors.

The CEO of at least one other competing metaverse corporation has said that he doubts this step will actually work as intended. In addition to these new sanctions, VRChat also has the ability to mute (so you can’t hear) and block (so you can’t see) other avatars in its pop-up user interface, and a “safe mode”, which is a sort of “nuclear option” where you can mute and block all avatars which are not on your friends list.

VRChat is also temp-banning people who troll, but sometimes other people get accidentally caught in the cross-fire. I seem to remember that there is also a feature where you can ask avatars who share your world to vote “yes” or “no” on ejecting a misbehaving user from that instance.

So all in all, VRChat has developed the most evolved and developed tools for dealing with trolling. But then again, they’ve been forced to.

 

AltspaceVR

Back in 2016, AltspaceVR introduced a “space bubble” to keep other avatars from invading your personal space. I do know that you can also mute other avatars who are annoying you. You don’t have an option to block offensive avatars in AltspaceVR, but then again, you don’t really have any choice in your avatar, they’re so very limited!

I would load and run AltspaceVR to check all these features out, but the latest version of the client software (where you get to choose your new “home” location) has completely locked up my high-end PC THREE. TIMES. tonight and I am not going to risk trying it again! AltspaceVR seems to be experiencing some major growing pains. Seriously not impressed.

 

High Fidelity

High Fidelity has a Bubble icon on its tablet user interface that works similarly to the AltspaceVR space bubble:

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You can also mute nearby avatars, or set them to “ignore” so they can’t messsage you in-world. Pretty much the same features as the other social VR spaces have. All the tools in all the newer social VR spaces are pretty limited.

 

General Issues in Dealing with Trolling and Griefing

So, let’s move from specific technical solutions to a more general discussion on how to handle griefing in general. What’s the best way to go about dealing with griefing, trolling, and harassment in online communities?

Dr. Mark Dombeck, in an article on the website MentalHealth.net, neatly outlines some of the issues in community and game design that affect trolling:

In my experience, manipulating perpetrator anonymity is an important factor in controlling griefer’s/troll’s antisocial behavior. The more easily identifiable and able to be held accountable for their actions community members are, the fewer instances of bad behavior you tend to see.

Allied with the idea of altering perpetrator anonymity is the idea of altering expectation of punishment. Accountability enables easier punishment. There are several ways that punishment can take place however. Punishment can be very informal, where community members heap scorn on other members who violate the social contract or simply ignore them (by using filters within the community to literally make their presence invisible). This sort of informal punishment is what makes accountability effective all by itself. Accountability can also enable more formal varieties of punishment such as entry bans. In my experience bans are the most useful way to discourage the really hardcore antisocial behavior that happens on communities. Punishment can never hope to eradicate all griefer/troll behavior however, because the really hardcore griefers will thrive on punishment, seeing attempts by the management to eject them as high praise for their work.

Here are a few other elements of the community or game that can be manipulated and which might have an impact on reducing griefing/trolling behavior.

Setting up Initiation Barriers probably would affect griefing behavior. The easier it is to get into a community, the more likely that community is to become a target for griefers. In part this has to do with helping people to identify with and value the community and not take it for granted. When you have to do a lot of work to get into a community you are more likely to care for that community and not want to harm it. The problem here is that the same barriers that might keep out griefers also keep out legitimate members. It is difficult to set a barrier high enough to keep out one group without also keeping out the other group.

I’d expect that the more opportunity there is to act out griefer behaviors with a group of other griefers, the more often the behavior would happen. People tend to take less responsibility for individual actions when they are acting as part of a group or mob. This social psychological principle goes by several names including the bystander effect, and diffusion of responsibility. The solution here would be to limit people’s ability to socialize, but as that utterly defeats the purpose of the community it isn’t really much of a solution.

I would expect that manipulating the frame of the community or game can increase or decrease the chance that griefer behavior will occur. The frame of a game or community has to do with its identity – how members think of what they are doing when engaged in the game or community. If an interaction is thought of as a game and therefore not something that is real or important it is easier to self-justify doing mayhem. If an interaction is thought of as a more serious behavior such as part of a support group interaction, the urge to do mayhem is maybe less strong (for some at least). The Wired article talks about this issue somewhat indirectly, noting that Second Life members don’t think of what they do in Second Life as being part of a game but rather view it as a more serious community. The “non-game” frame of Second Life participants makes such participants more likely to view griefing behavior taking place within Second Life in non-game ways, such as considering it to be actual theft or terrorism.

Second Life has often been an arena for trolling because it’s very easy to create a free, throwaway account to be offensive. If one gets banned, the griefer can go ahead and create another free account. All the newer social VR spaces have this problem, since they don’t want to discourage people from signing up and (hopefully) staying and generating income for the company.

There are no easy answers here. The best we can do is try various solutions and see if they prove effective or not. In these early days of the metaverse, we’re all still learning the best ways to design our communities to chain the trolls.

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Comparing Events Listings in the Various Virtual Worlds

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Picture by webandi on Pixabay

How do you find out what’s going on in the various social VR spaces/virtual worlds? Often the best way is to consult their upcoming events listings. In this blogpost I am going to link to all the various event schedules that I have been able to locate for each of the major metaverse platfrorms.

 

First, let’s start off with Second Life. The Events listing in the Second Life client (under Search in the Firestorm client) can be a bit overwhelming due to the sheer magnitude of events listed (there’s also a lot of store advertising spam mixed in). You can use the handy drop-down menu in the upper right-hand corner of the Search window (under the General, Moderate, and Adult checkboxes) to limit your searching to, say, live music events. There’s also an events page on the Second Life website, which doesn’t appear to have as many events listed as you can find using the client. There’s also a Featured Events listing in the Destination Guide, which can direct you the major events happening around the grid.

 

Sansar has an upcoming events calendar within the client software, displayed prominently on the right-hand side of the screen when you first log in. There’s also a Rolodex icon labelled Events in the upper right-hand corner of the screen, which you can click at any time to see the events listings:

Sansar Create Event 3 21 Mar 2018

Sansar also has a dedicated Featured Events page on their website, as well as an Upcoming Events section on the Sansar Atlas page.

 

High Fidelity has an upcoming events page in pinboard, agenda, or calendar month views. Unfortunately, there’s no events listing within their client, on their tablet user interface, so you’ll have to rely on the website to get your information before you go in-world.

(Update: I just discovered that there is an in-world display board of upcoming events in High Fidelity’s Start domain, which you can search for on your tablet UI under the “Go To” icon:

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Sinespace has an Events section on their official blog, but it’s not updated very often. You’re better off loading the Sinespace client software and getting information from the Upcoming Events section on the left-hand side of the log in screen:

Sinespace Login Screen 14 APr 2018

There’s also an upcoming events board located near the spawn point at the Sinespace Welcome Centre:

What's On In Sinespace 14 Apr 2018

 

VRChat actually has a VRChat Events website with links to their Discord server and to an online calendar of events. This is a separate Discord server from the very busy main VRChat Discord server, with different channels for each of the regularly scheduled events happening in VRChat, including the popular Endgame talk show. There’s simply no better way to stay abreast of everything that’s happening in VRChat! There’s also an official events calendar on the VRChat website. (Surprisingly, there is no upcoming events listing within the VRChat client, a glaring omission.)

 

AltspaceVR has a Featured Events listing on their website, as well as a listing of upcoming events in their client software.

 

I think that about covers it! Now you know where to get up-to-date information on what’s happening in the various virtual worlds. See you in-world!

My Predictions For The Next Two Years

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Photo by Wyron A on Unsplash

I’ve been hanging around virtual worlds of one kind or another for over a decade now. I’ve seen them come and go. Some were spectacular failures that provided lessons for other companies. Others just kind of meander along, not attracting very many users or ever becoming very big (like the multitude of OpenSim-based grids).

What usually happens in today’s hyper-competitive computer applications marketplace, is that one or two players in a particular market segment get big (e.g. Microsoft, MySpace, Facebook, and yes, in its own way, Second Life), and then continue to grow like a juggernaut, based on the network effect, while the smaller players in the marketplace fight each other over the leftovers. The ones who get big are usually, but not always, the early entrants into the field (Second Life is a prime example of that, although there were notable virtual worlds which were founded before it, like ActiveWorlds).

But social VR and virtual worlds are not a zero-sum game. Many consumers are frequent visitors to a number of different metaverse platforms, and many creators build and sell products in various virtual worlds. Right now, success in one VR-capable virtual world (e.g. VRChat) generates interest in other social VR spaces. As they say, “A rising tide lifts all boats”.

It’s still not clear where all this is going, but I’m willing to polish my crystal ball and make a few predictions of what will happen over the next two year period, from now until April 2020.

What I predict will happen, over the next two years, is that one of the Big Five computer companies:

  • Alphabet/Google
  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Facebook/Oculus*
  • Microsoft

Is either going to launch their own social VR/virtual world/metaverse product, OR is going to buy one of the Big Four metaverse-building companies:

  • High Fidelity
  • Linden Lab (Second Life and Sansar)
  • Sine Wave Entertainment (Sinespace)
  • VRChat

(We’ve already seen this happen with Microsoft’s purchase of AltspaceVR.) We could also see a company buy out a virtual world, just to grab the programming talent, and then shut the world down completely (as Yahoo! did with the promising Cloud Party).

Now, there’s no guarantee that any of the Big Four companies WANT to be bought out by the Big Five. Perhaps instead of a buyout, a strategic partnership deal will be inked. But I bet you anything that it’s tempting for the bigger companies to buy their way into the evolving metaverse marketplace, rather than design something from scratch.

I also predict that a LOT of the new virtual world/social VR startups we see popping up are going to fail over the next two years. There’s a lot of virtual-reality-related (and especially blockchain-related) hype taking place, and some people are investing in startups that are risky. Some smaller companies have jumped into grand virtual world-building projects without realizing the sheer magnitude of the work involved in creating a fully-featured, viable metaverse. I’m afraid that some investors are going to get burned.

I also predict that Sinespace and VRChat are going to pull ahead in terms of features, simply because they decided to build on top of the popular Unity game engine, and they can use all the cool Unity development tools that are popping up. By comparison, feature development on Sansar will be slower as they continue work in-house on their own engine.

And finally, I expect that Second Life’s 15th anniversary celebrations will entice some former users to dust off their old accounts and revisit the platform to see what’s new. It may well herald a renaissance for SL! At the very least, it will help stave off a slow decline in SL’s user concurrency figures.

*Sorry, but as I have said before, Facebook Spaces is not a palatable social VR/virtual world product. It can’t even come close to competing against what High Fidelity, Second Life, Sinespace and VRChat are currently doing. But I bet you anything that Facebook has other plans up their sleeve. They can still try to leverage off their 2-billion-plus Facebook network (not to mention 800 million Instagram users) to become a potential major disruptor in the evolving metaverse marketplace. I’m not counting them out yet!

AltspaceVR: A Brief Introduction

Nobody was more surprised than I was when Microsoft stepped in at the last minute to save AltspaceVR. Most people assumed the virtual world was doomed when they announced last July that they had run out of money. But obviously, Microsoft felt that the product was worth saving, as their potential foot in the door in the increasingly crowded room of social VR apps. God knows they have enough money to do something interesting with it. God knows AltspaceVR needs someone to pour money into it.

AltspaceVR is a California-based company which was founded in 2013, and which launched its social VR application in May 2015. So they’ve been around for a while now.

My biggest problem with AltspaceVR is the platform’s avatars. They are dreadfully cartoony. I can only assume that they made this deliberate design decision so the avatars are very quick and easy to render on a platform that supports not only the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets, but also Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR, and the numerous Windows Mixed Reality headsets, plus Windows computer desktop users. But I find them to be butt-ugly, and terribly unappealing. Let’s hope Microsoft has plans to upgrade them.

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I personally found it extremely funny that Microsoft felt they had to tart up the default AltspaceVR avatars in the following promotional video titled “Ushering in the era of Windows Mixed Reality”, issued in October 2017, shortly after they bought AltspaceVR.

If you click on the following YouTube video, it should start around the 15:40 minute mark, which is where the AltspaceVR segment occurs. I can assure you that the avatars used in this Microsoft promotional video were ones with completely redesigned and customized heads, which are NOT available to current AltspaceVR users! User avatar customization options in AltspaceVR are very limited, still. Truth in advertising, hmmm…

There are a few interesting regular events happening in AltspaceVR, notably VR Church, an initiative launched by Pastor D.J. Soto (WIRED article), which I wrote about in an earlier blogpost on religion, spirituality and virtual reality. (SacredVR also holds weekly guided meditation events in AltspaceVR.) Of course, religious events are hardly new to virtual worlds; Second Life has had churches operating almost from the very beginning.

AltspaceVR is worth keeping an eye on, if for no other reason than to see what Microsoft plans to do with their acquisition.