Is that a good thing?

Proponents of virtual reality are bringing immersive anti-sexual harassment training to a metaverse near you. Real-world humans who have experienced the metaverse—and those who say they have been subjected to sexual harassment in the metaverse, in one case within a minute of logging on—might give this idea some serious side-eye.

VR’s virtues: VR company Vantage Point has been developing immersive sexual-harassment training for clients since its founding in 2017. The company’s CEO, Morgan Mercer, told Fast Company in 2019 that traditional methods hadn’t delivered “engagement with the material [or] the ability to apply learning to real-life environments and situations.” Indeed, advocates point to research suggesting employees retain more information through VR training than traditional modules.

Full immersion: Vantage Point and Sisu, two VR training platforms, ask employees to play first-person decision games where they find themselves directly in the middle of a workplace harassment event.

In Sisu’s version, employees complete the immersive games in fifteen-minute blocks over the span of roughly two hours, protocol reports, where they roleplay as victims, offenders, or observers. Sisu’s marketing materials describe the training as “real cases” designed to help employees “learn to handle realistic situations” where participants will analyze how their “actions may affect [their] circumstances—for better or worse!”

On Vantage Point’s platform, which uses photorealistic characters “to heighten the emotional stakes” of the experience, Mercer told Protocol, “Much like in the real world, the things that you do the effect the outcome you have, and so if you speak up sooner , things get better.”

But how real is too real? According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 81% of women and 43% of men reported experiencing sexual harassment or assault within their lifetime.

Claire Schmidt, CEO and founder of AllVoices, a platform that allows employees to anonymously report sexual harassment, discrimination, and bias to management, surveyed employees and found that 50% had been harassed and reported it to “a manager, to HR, or to an ombudsperson or third party. But still many do not: 20.9% of female respondents and 14.8% of male respondents said they experienced harassment but didn’t report it.

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Schmidt hopes that using immersive, realistic tech to simulate harassment could unintentionally do harm.

“There’s a huge number of people who have had these types of experience, from sexual harassment to even sexual assault, and companies aren’t always aware of what their employees have experienced,” Schmidt said. “When I hear about something like this, I’m hopeful that technology can be part of the solution…for addressing these issues proactively…[but] a lot of thought needs to be put into how to keep people safe, how to make sure you’re not triggering PTSD by putting them in a situation that is similar to something traumatic they’ve experienced in the past—especially given how realistic these VR platforms and programs are.”

Even if it’s for the purpose of training, immersion can feel real. Chanelle Siggens, a woman who reported being groped in VR, told the New York Times, “When something bad happens, when someone comes up and gropes you, your mind is tricking you into thinking it’s happening in the real world.”

Sisu’s code of ethics addresses the possibility of trauma directly, stating that the platform aims to “be virtually real enough (eg, first-person, realistic settings, etc) so that they engage users emotionally but not so virtually real that they traumatize them ( eg, text-box prompts artificially limit user choice as many VRET simulations do).”

Still, Schmidt said if employers do choose to use VR, the best route is to allow employees the option to opt out and complete a different type of training, no questions asked.—SV

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SusannaVogel1 on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Susanna for her number on Signal.

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