AltspaceVR/YouTube

Today's virtual reality parable comes to us from Reddit's r/virtualreality, where a user with the handle DeadMage shared a story about joining a cult in a VR world. Not a real one, but we'll get to that in a moment.

DeadMage, whose real name is Michael Wolf, is a self-described indie VR game developer, who used his Oculus Rift late on Sunday night to play with a program called AltspaceVR. As he explained on Reddit:

I noticed that AltspaceVR was free on the Oculus store, so I decided to check it out. A few moments later, I found myself in the "Welcome Room"; a large room full of about 15 other people, each of us with a different avatar that acted like a puppet connected to our headsets.

AltspaceVR is a "social VR" program. As explained in a video last year, it interacts with the web so you can watch Netflix, play chess, have meetings, or play Dungeons & Dragons in ~virtual reality~. If that sounds a lot like a pared down, VR version of Second Life, that's because it's an apt comparison. Both are ostensibly social game-ish bits of software that allow for some fun, weird shit to go down.

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Which brings us back to the cult. He hung out in the welcome room, and before long a new religion coalesced around a player who'd left his avatar standing in the room unattended, but who had wildly flailing arms. I'll let Wolf explain:

About an hour into my experience, things began to get.. weird… but in a good way. In the welcome room, there was a large mirror, which I guess was intended for people to use to see their own avatars. In front of said mirror was a guy named "Steve", who appeared to be AFK [Away From Keyboard]… and whose arms seemed to be flying around randomly around him (which I later learned to be a byproduct of using the Kinect as a tracking system). Somebody had the silly idea to clip inside of Steve's avatar, and begin saying "I am Steve". A few others, including myself, followed suit, and all piled onto the same spot, chanting "I am Steve", as we waved our hands about. Soon we all began changing our avatars to be exactly the same as Steve's, and more and more from around the room began to join in. Thus, the "Cult of Steve" was born.

This rules. Pointless antics around absent players/participants can be a great joy. Whom among us hasn't goofed around with friends around the sitting avatar of some orc? Probably plenty, but I have, and let me tell you, it's a good time. Ephemeral experiences with strangers like this are a big part of what make online games worthwhile.

At this point though, things get a bit dicey. Wolf explains what happened next:

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For the rest of the night, whenever somebody would join the room, we would swarm him, chanting "We are Steve", "Join us", "You must become one of us". We would "caress" and "hold them down" with our virtual hands until they converted. Most played along, saying things like "Yes… yes.. I am Steve", and others just left.

Now this part sounds disturbing: from a first-person perspective, being held down and forcibly caressed would feel a lot like a virtual sexual assault. When I contacted Wolf by email though, he said the experience was less invasive than it sounds.

"We only did the whole 'conversion' thing if the person indicated that they wanted to play along, and we were respectful of anyone who indicated otherwise," he wrote. "These rooms have 24/7 admins, and if we made anyone uncomfortable, they had the option to literally teleport away from us and/or the option to voice any issues they had with said admin."

This is good! Both in terms of the Cult of Steve apparently being careful and the presence of admins. Virtual reality is a nascent genre, but it's already been acknowledged that it faces a sexual harassment problem, with female players in particular having their virtual space intruded upon.

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AltspaceVR's CEO Eric Romo told Fusion's Kevin Roose in April that harassment in VR could be much worse than on other games or elsewhere on the internet.

“The potential downside of bad actors and harassment is, frankly, a lot greater than in, say, online forums or chat streams," he said. "You feel like you’re there with someone else.”

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The Cult of Steve disbanded shortly afterwards, and this was a case of people just messing around. Let's hope their consent-based approach to role-play in VR is embraced by others as good virtual social hygiene.

Long story short: have fun in VR, but be doubly careful in remembering someone else is on the other end of the line.

Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at ethan.chiel@fusion.net