Can You Break the Law in Virtual Reality?

Posted March 30th, 2017, by Dan Carman

A 12-year-old boy gets behind the wheel of his Cadillac and cruises down the streets of Miami. He occasionally gets out of the vehicle to collect money from passersby, using violence when necessary. He drives through parks and public spaces, colliding with pedestrians. He deftly avoids police officers who chase after him. There are no consequences or legal ramifications – after all, he’s just playing a video game.

For years, games like Grand Theft Auto have been allowing users to run amok in a digital world, doing things that would essentially be considered psychopathic behavior in the real world. Of course, it’s not as if the person playing the game is doing anything wrong. There are no real victims, just computer-generated characters. No harm, no foul.

But the isolated world of video games is becoming a thing of the past. Today, gamers log into digital universes to play games with other people — real people. It’s not only common for these users to act violently or cruelly toward other digital universe inhabitants, it’s often the whole point of a game.

The Emergence of Virtual Reality

Video games are becoming much more realistic. They not only look more lifelike than they used to, they are also offering a more lifelike experience through virtual reality technology. Virtual reality is the latest trend in the gaming world, and it is also becoming more common among users who aren’t just playing games: they’re also flying over cities and walking on tightropes from almost unimaginable heights.

As this technology becomes a bigger part of our lives, as is expected, it begs an interesting question: how will legal issues that apply in the real world affect virtual reality users?

This area of the law is as new as virtual technology itself. There have been several cases that deal with online interactions, some of which deal with privacy, bullying and copyright issues. But virtual reality has, thus far, not been subjected to intense legal scrutiny, even though the experience of virtual reality feels much more real than simply looking at a web browser or using an app on your phone.

When Virtual Reality Becomes All Too Real

One CNN news story from 2016 highlights some of the dangers inherent in virtual reality technology. A woman was playing QuiVr (a zombie killing game) on a virtual reality headset when another user’s avatar groped her character, despite her requests for the other user to stop. She was upset by the incident, and felt even more disgusted by the response of people online when she complained about the incident on a Medium post.

Harassment in the virtual reality world will likely become a much bigger topic as the technology becomes more realistic and more widely-used. When people are protected by anonymity and interact with others through an avatar, they behave differently, sometimes in a much crueler manner.

Virtual reality is the Wild West of the online world. Right now, the same rules that apply to the real world, don’t apply to this technology. Whether they should, or shouldn’t, is a question that people are starting to ask.

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