'It can have lasting psychological effects': The ethics of virtual reality

Immersing yourself in virtual reality can change the way you behave in the real world and you might not even know it, according to philosopher Michael Madary. He's co-author of the first code of ethics for virtual reality research and consumer use.
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Immersion in virtual reality can change the way you behave in the real world—and you might not even know it, according to philosopher Michael Madary.

Michael Madary

Madary was hired by the European Commission to be part of a five-year research program called Virtual Embodiment and Robotic Re-embodiment, along with German philosopher Thomas Metzinger.

Their job was to investigate the philosophical and ethical implications of virtual reality. As the results came in from various experiments, it became clear that there were definite risks associated with these technologies. Madary and Metzinger responded to what they were learning by writing the first code of ethics for virtual reality.

Their recommendations cover research and development as well as consumer and personal use.

Virtual reality is so powerful, Madary explains, because it imitates the way we perceive and move through the real world. It gives us the strong illusion of being somewhere else. Madary remembers an experiment he participated in; one that involved the illusion of walking a tightrope high above New York City. 

My legs started shaking as if I were standing on the edge of a tall building. And then I had to tell myself, This isn't real. I remembered I had students and colleagues watching me so I didn't want to back down.So I broke the illusion by deliberately stepping off of the cord, off the wire, so my foot touched the floor; and then I calmed down.- Michael Madary

He points out that virtual reality is inherently different from watching a movie or playing a video game because there is no gap between what happens to "my character" and what happens to "me."

Bias, race, and virtual reality

One of the experiments Madary studied involved giving an implicit bias test to subjects to gage how participants felt about race. Afterward, people were placed in a virtual reality environment with an avatar of a different race.

"And they let them spend some time in a dark-skinned avatar, say just about ten minutes, moving around, feeling this illusion of embodiment,  looking in a mirror and so on. And then afterwards the subjects were given the same tests — the implicit racial bias test — and they were less racist. They performed better on the test after this experience in VR."


'Risky content'

Madary cautions that the power of virtual reality requires a careful hand in how it's used. One section of the Code of Ethics deals with so-called "risky content," like immersion in violent or pornographic material. 

"Any amateur user will be able to generate an avatar that looks like anybody on earth, or anybody who has lived, and then animate that avatar to do whatever they'd like. So I'll let your listeners use their imagination as to what sorts of wild applications may come out of that," says Madary.

We can imagine negative psychological effects from that— you know, extreme violence and pornography—where it's experienced in virtual reality, it's experienced as real, as something that really happens to people.- Michael Madary

Madary also notes that all of the testing has thus far been done on adults, and there's been no research on how virtual reality affects children.