Understanding & Designing for Preventing Interpersonal Harm in Social VR through the Lens of Consent

As social Virtual Reality (VR) grows in prevalence, new possibilities for embodied and immersive social
interaction emerge, including varied forms of interpersonal harm. Yet, challenges remain regarding defining,
identifying, and mitigating said harm in social VR. We take an alternative approach to understanding and designing solutions for interpersonal harm in social VR through the lens of consent, which circumvents the lack of consensus and social norms on what should be defined as harm in social VR and reflects the embodied, immersive, and offline-world-like nature of harm in social VR. Through interviews with 39 social VR users, we offer one of the first empirical explorations on how social VR users understand consent as "boundaries," (re)purpose existing social VR features for practicing consent as "boundary setting," and envision the design of future consent mechanics in social VR to balance protection and interaction expectations to mitigate interpersonal harm as "boundary violations" in social VR. 
Participated in brainstorming the framing and research questions; collected and analyzed the data; wrote manuscripts

Kelsea Schulenberg, Lingyuan Li, Caitlin Lancaster, Douglas Zytko, & Guo Freeman (Accepted, 2023). "We Don't Want a Bird Cage, We Want Guardrails": Understanding & Designing for Preventing Interpersonal Harm in Social VR through the Lens of Consent. In Proceedings of the ACM on Human Computer Interaction (PACM HCI), CSCW.
Research Questions
RQ1: How do people conceptualize consent and consent practices in their social interactions in social VR?
RQ2: Grounded in these conceptualizations, how, if at all, have people already (re)purposed
existing design features in social VR as consent mechanics in their social VR interactions?
QR3: What are social VR users’ own expectations for future consent mechanics in social
VR to prevent interpersonal harm, and what are social VR users’ design recommendations to meet these expectations?
39 in-depth semi-structured interviews
Qualitative analysis: thematic analysis
RQ1 Conceptualizing Consent and Consent Practices in Social VR
① Boundaries as a foundational lens to conceptualize consent in social VR
② Consent practices in social VR revolve around the negotiation of boundaries
RQ2  Existing Consent Mechanics in Social VR Interactions
① Using specific virtual locations as a consent mechanic through spatial boundaries
② Requesting and expressing "YES" to control personal boundaries through existing social VR
③ Expressing "NO" to control personal boundaries in social VR in nuanced ways
RQ3 Users’ Vision for Designing Future Consent Mechanics in Social VR to Balance Their
Protection and Interaction Expectations
① Protection and interaction expectations for designing and implementing future consent mechanics in social VR: maintaining immersion while in social VR; a natural social experience while interacting with others in social VR.
② Four specific factors to consider when designing customization options in future consent mechanics for social VR spaces: the relationship to the requester, the nature of the requested action, when and where an interaction takes place, and the ability to revoke consent.
First, the study uncovers how actual social VR users conceptualize consent in these novel, embodied online social spaces as boundaries, which refers to pre-established behaviors that require explicit agreement from a recipient or between two parties before happening, and the act of practicing consent as boundary setting. In doing so, our findings illuminate how conceptualizations of consent used in other social technologies (e.g., affirmative consent) may not be reflective of the understandings and perspectives of users of emerging online social spaces such as social VR.
Second, grounded in these understandings, the study finds that users conceptualize harm in social VR as unwanted boundary violation, thus innovating how harm, a subjective and highly personal experience, can be better defined and approached in emerging social VR spaces.
Finally, the study highlights how users, despite not being provided official formalized consent mechanics in any social VR platform, are already repurposing social VR structures to fit their consent needs anyways.
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