Rec Room is the most popular virtual reality game. It's a social space where you can play dodgeball, ping pong, darts and more with people from all over the world. But when you're inviting everyone to play, how do you make sure that everyone is safe? What happens when a player attacks someone? What does an attack even look like in a virtual world? Cameron Brown, Chief Creative Officer at Against Gravity, the creators of Rec Room, takes us through the world of social virtual reality and shows how they've designed a system to make their game a welcoming place for all.
[00:00:02.03] Saron Yitbarek: A quick pre-show announcement: we are hiring! If you're a fan of the show and looking for a part-time gig, we are looking for a technical writer. This is a remote, six-month contract, pays $2,000 a month, and you get to work with me! So if you're interested, apply by September 8th. Link is in the show notes.
[00:00:24.28] SY: Welcome to episode 2 of Season One of the Code Newbie podcast, where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I'm your host Saron, and today on the show we are talking about virtuality. So there's this game called rec room.
SY: That's my husband Rob watching me play.
Why are you doing this.
SY: As you can tell, he's very impressed. It's a virtual reality game, or VR for short. You put on a VR headset - we use the HGC5 - and if you haven't tried this before, you strap it on your head and it completely covers your eyes. So all you see is this whole new world. And, since the game is called rec room, the world you see is a rec room.
[00:01:03.12] Cameron Brown: So rec room is a virtual reality social club.
SY: That's Cameron Brown, chief creative officer at Against Gravity.
CB: And we make rec room.
SY: You can play all kinds of games.
CB: You can play disc golf and go on adventures and play paintball.
SY: When you start the game ("Oh, this is so cool!") -
Are you ready to listen?
SY: You're in a place called the dorm room, where you pick your avatar. Now these avatars are human, so you can choose things like your hair, your outfit, your skin color...
And why does it do that?
SY: Omg, I'm so black, it's crazy!
[00:01:29.02] SY: Now, normally on the show, I try to keep it really professional. But...("Yo, this is weird - I'm a black man yo"), but I got really excited. ("I mean, I'm already black but I'm a man, I have a penis! That's crazy!") Rec room is the most popular VR game.
CB: It's literally never empty. It's - there's people in it all the time.
[00:01:52.22] SY: Playing virtual basketball with people from all over the world sounds awesome - or terrifying, depending on who you are - but if anyone and everyone can play, how do you make sure that everyone is safe? What happens when someone harrasses you or invades your space? What does invading your space even look like in a fake world?
[00:02:06.18] CB: It feels real in a way that a non-VR game doesn't.
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[00:04:01.07] (Music) SY: So tell us a little bit about what rec room is.
CB: So rec room is a virtual reality social club, where you make friends and play active games with people from all around the world. So it's kind of a 24/7 always open rec center where you can kind of make friends and play disc golf and go on adventures and play paint ball and generally just hang out and have a great time with people from literally anywhere in the world.
[00:04:31.07] SY: Ok, so when you put it that way it sounds really awesome and really exciting, but for me as a non-gamer and someone who is - I'm not used to multiplayer games, I tried to play portal once and ended up falling backwards through one of the circles - it was embarrassing. So, for someone like me, a lot of that actually sounds really terrifying. It sounds really scary to be put in a virtual world where I have to learn the space and how to navigate - the regular video game part of that, but I also have to interact with other people that I don't know. That feels scary to me. Do people generally have that reaction?
[00:05:05.13] CB: Well, yeah, I think some people do, and I think that's not an uncommon reaction, and I feel a little bit of that myself. I'm kind of an introverted person by nature, which is funny given that my current job is making a social app for VR. But yeah, I think that's a completely reasonable reaction because everyone feels a little bit of social anxiety when they go into a new location or into a new group of people, so I think it's kind of a testament to the way that social VR works, that it does feel surreal, and it does feel like interacting with other humans to the point where a lot of that anxiety and that stuff that you bring with you to real world social interactions carries over into VR. It's a very real phenomenon that we think about a lot, is how can we make sure people have a great experience immediately. And constantly we're told from players of rec room that the best experience they have is when they're lucky enough to find someone who's an experienced rec room user, who'll take them under their wing and kind of take them on a guided tour. It's a great experience for the experienced player, they're like "Oh, I get to show off one of my favorite things to a new person," and it's great for the new player because it can be overwhelming, there's a lot going on. And so we do everything we can to try to make that dynamic happen as much as possible.
[00:06:19.15] SY: Yeah, that's one thing that I really appreciate about you specifically - you know, I've read up about what you all do to create that welcoming experience. So, first let's define what a welcoming experience is. When I go to rec room for the first time as a new player, maybe I'm new to VR in general, what is the ideal experience that you would want me to have?
[00:06:37.14] CB: The ideal experience we want you to have is first of all, we'd take you through a kind of one-time only tutorial, which is really about the mechanics of operating rec room. So it's how do you move, how do you pick things up, put things down, how do you go from place to place. The absolute basics - how do you choose how you look like, how you present to the world. And then we try to make sure that people understand that there's a code of conduct, that rec room has a certain culture to it. The way we think about the culture of rec room and the way that rec room works is we have what we call a social mission. And that's a fancy way of saying it's like a one-sentence summary of what we're trying to create, and that sentence is, we want to make sure rec room's a fun and welcoming environment for people of all walks of life. And so that's something we'll say to each other, internally to the team, a few times a week as we're trying to make decisions about how things should work. It's something that we say to the community, when we interact with them either in rec room or on the forums, and it's something we try to say publically as much as possible because we want that to be the baseline of what we're trying to do. So I can kind of break that down if you want, we've thought about this daily -
[00:07:41.14] SY: Please do.
CB: We've tried to think about it pretty deeply, so. If we break that into pieces, it kind of starts with fun and welcoming. By fun, we mean - we want rec room to be something that you choose to do. All of us things in our lives that we have to do, we've got to work and we've got to take care of our families - there's joy to that, but there's also a sense of duty. These are the things that we must do. So we think of fun things as like - once all of those must-do's are taken care of, what do you choose to spend your time on? You could spend time watching Netflix or you could spend time playing a game. We want you to come and feel like your choice is - come and spend time in rec room, hanging out with other amazing people from around the world. So that's what we mean by fun - something that you would choose to do with your precious, limited free time. And then welcoming - what we really mean, when someone comes to rec room, a. we want them to not have a negative experience. So we don't want anyone to be confronted with harassing behavior or discriminatory behavior or be immediately piled upon, even if it's by people with good intentions who are just maybe a little rambunctious. To a new user, it can be really just quite intense to have people crowding around you and trying to get your attention, so we want to make sure that people don't have that negative experience, and then going a step beyond that, we want to actively make sure people have a positive experience. So we want to try and encourage people to - like I kind of mentioned earlier, take a new player under your wing and show them how to have a good time in rec room. Try to make sure they have a positive experience proactively. [00:09:10.29] The last piece of it is really the all walks of life piece. You know, rec room's a global app. We have players from all around the world in there 24/7. An amazing fact about rec room is that it's literally never empty. It's - there's people in it all the time. When we think about all walks of life, we take a really broad definition of that. There's gender - we have male players, we have female players. The female experience of social VR is somewhat different to the male experience of social VR. There's a race and a culture piece to it - we have players from all over the world who are bringing different cultural norms with them, different cultural expectations with them. Skill levels - we have people who've never touched a VR headset before. And then there's physical disposition - we have players who use a wheelchair, or who otherwise have a different way of interacting with their VR hardware than most of our players. And, especially Friday, Saturday nights in rec room, we think about our intoxicated users.
[00:10:11.27] SY: I didn't think about that - that's a good point, yeah.
CB: Coming in from a party, maybe they're a little impaired. But hey, this is all people from different walks of life, but we try to make sure that the system and the culture and the community is fun and welcoming for all of them.
[00:10:25.25] SY: So this is what's really interesting. In the real world, I can pick up a lot of information from nonverbal cues, right? Like, if someone is saying obnoxious things but I can see that they're kind of walking funny, I can see that their eyes are glazed over, I can tell that they're intoxicated. So I'm going to approach that entire interaction really differently with that information in mind. But with virtual reality, I don't have all those social cues, right, I don't have those visual, those non-verbal cues. All I have is the avatar, I can see their mouth moving, and I can hear their voice. So, I was one of those people that was very overwhelmed and I was like, "Oh my god, there's real humans here, I don't know what to do!" First, I just didn't want to talk with anyone, I didn't want to interact with anyone, I kind of wanted to figure out the space first. So I had people coming up to me who wanted to play ping pong and wanted to - I think they were being helpful, but I kind of just kept running away, because I wasn't ready to do anything. And if it were the real world, they could see from my face, from my eyes that I'm uncomfortable or I'm scared. They can tell what mood I'm in. But because all they see is me running away, I probably look like a terribly mean person. So, how do you deal with the lack of those non-verbal communication tools that we have in the real world?
[00:11:42.19] CB: You raise not one but many great points there. So, one, you're absolutely right, there's definitely less social signal there that you get from another person's avatar. The way you present in rec room is that you're an avatar that is basically your head, which tracks in real time the exact motion of your head in the real world, so it's very very precise tracking of where you're looking. There's your hands, that likewise track very very precisely so your hand gestures and your hand movements are very natural. We have a torso that kind of follows your head movements, and it not actually tracking your real torso, but it gives a sense of where the player is. And that's about it. So, one thing is, it is amazing how much information is conveyed just by those three pieces of information - head and hands. It's uncanny how you can actually recognize a friend in rec room just from their body language. Like, after you get to know them, people have a certain way of standing or a certain way of leaning or moving their hands while they talk, and you're kind of like, "Oh, yeah, that's such and such!" [00:12:39.16] But you're right, there are some subtle social cues like gazed eyes or really precise facial expressions that aren't yet possible in VR. You've got a strong feeling of being physically present with the other players, but you are not. There is kind of a ceiling on the physical danger you're in. People can't punch you in VR - at least not yet. But in terms of keeping it fun and welcoming, we obviously don't want to rely on the fact that people can't punch you to make you feel welcome -
[00:13:08.00] SY: No punching here, you're safe. (Laughs).
[00:13:09.27] CB: Yeah, not unless it's part of one of the games. Every so often we hold town halls with one of the players, like on a Friday night we get together and recently we've been having thirty, forty people come. We'll have like a Q and A and kind of ask how we're doing, how's our driving, are we having a good experience in rec room, what do you want to see more of, what do you want to see less of. And in our early town halls, something that I noticed when I was hosting one was - it was really hard to tell who was talking. The mouths moved, so you can see when people are talking, but it's very subtle, especially from a few meters away. Even with spacial audio - like 3D audio that tries to pinpoint where sounds are coming from - it's not quite as good as the real world sense of direction that you have. So I actually found it was quite hard to tell who was asking me a question sometimes, and I'd have to ask around, and go "Oh, is that you, is that you," and so something we added is these very cartoony speech lines, that come out the avatar's mouth so it kind of looks like a sound wave coming out of the mouth, so that gives you a very clear cue of who is it who's speaking [00:14:09.01] So if someone is yelling or being disruptive in one of the public areas of rec room or saying stuff that you don't want to hear, that makes it a lot easier to quickly identify who is that, what are they doing.
[00:14:21.08] SY: Interesting.
CB: To go back to your experience, in your first couple of sessions, it's kind of easy to feel overwhelmed. Really, I just want to admit that we don't do as good a job as we need to of handling that situation. We think of rec room as a live service and we update it very regularly - at least every couple of weeks, we're pushing an update. So we're constantly trying to evolve it and improve it, and this is something we know we need to do better. You said something that really resonated with me, because it's something we think about and talk a lot about internally is - as a new user, you kind of want to have a little bit of time and space to check things out, get the lay of the land before just jumping right into the deep end. And to be honest, we don't do a great job of that. We need to do a bit better.
[00:15:00.04] SY: Yeah, and I remember the first part of entering rec room, you don't actually go to the rec part, you go to a place called your dorm room. And that I loved a lot. (Laughs). It was really funny, I was playing under my husband's avatar, and he is a black man, and so you get to stand in front of the mirror and look at yourself and I was like, "Look at me, I'm a black man!" I just did that for like five minutes. But it was really cool, though, because you get to see what people see, you get to pick your outfit and stuff. You can play darts and play basketball - I couldn't get the ball in the basket, that's ok though. But you get to really walk around and get a little acquainted to the tools before - and you can always escape back to the dorm room as well, so I really appreciated that. Little space just to try things out a bit. That was nice.
[00:15:44.13] CB: Right. That was very deliberate. In the very first versions of rec room, we didn't have that, and when you booted the game, you were just in a public rec center. Some players were uncertain as to whether the avatars they were seeing were real humans, and they were kind of "Are these AIs? Are these MPCs? What is going on here?" And people would be like, "No, I'm real! I swear I'm a real person!" And so yeah, we decided to add the dorm room as this kind of decompression chamber, and as you said, it's only ever one button press away, so if you do get into a circumstance where you're like I'm just not comfortable with what's going on here, or I'm just done, it's as quick as looking at your watch - we have a watch interface where you just look at your wrist and a watch pops up - and you press one button, and you're back in your dorm room. And you can kind of reset and do whatever you need to do and maybe you're done for the night, or maybe you're ready to go back in and find people you're going to have more fun with.
[00:16:32.13] SY: Yeah. So, a lot of the sources of the harassment comes from what you look like. Do you represent yourself as a man, a woman, a person of color - and so, I know that other games avoid that problem entirely by having a avatar that is not supposed to reflect you - you're an elf, or a giant, or a knight, or a purple monster, and it just skips that whole issue of being judged or harassed for what you look like. But from what I can tell from the game, it sounds like being yourself in rec room is encouraged, I would say?
[00:17:05.12] CB: So, we don't take a strong stance on it, to be honest. We default to these very human avatars that are very abstract. But what we do is we take a very agnostic approach to how you present yourself. For example, you don't choose a gender in rec room - we don't ask you to select, "Do you want to be a male character or a female character" -
[00:17:22.15] SY: That's true, that's true.
CB: We think of the avatars as essentially genderless and then it's up to you to choose the clothing that you want, and we don't put any restrictions on can you mix a beard with a dress or any of these things that might be traditionally female, versus traditionally male. We definitely see users who use rec room as something of an identity playground. Like you said, inhabiting your husband's physical presentation for a moment -
[00:17:42.12] SY: It was so weird! We're both black, you would think that would - but just looking at me, like, I'm a man. It was so weird, it was so weird.
CB: Right, right. And I think a lot of people find that it's an interesting way to explore different aspects of their identity.
[00:17:54.07] SY: So, one thing that you need to do is you need to add an afro hairstyle.
SY: Because I tried to create myself, and there wasn't a nice, large Diana Ross hairstyle for me to pick -
CB: (Laughs) Ok, noted.
[00:18:08.15] SY: So, I need you to make that a priority. Ok? Ok. Deal. Deal.
CB: Ok, noted. That's fair.
SY: (Laughs). So, I want to get back to harassment a little bit. When we talk about harassment in virtual reality, one of the thing that I expected to happen was whether it's in rec room or in VR in general, is I expected it to feel like the comment section of every Youtube video coming to life. That's my vision, right. It's like, there's all these angry trolls out there who are just mad and saying terrible things for no good reason, and now they have avatars, now they are physical and can get in my space. Is that essentially what VR harassment looks like?
[00:18:45.18] CB: No, not really. I mean, there's a component of that - we do see some trolls who come in and their primary intent is to say shocking things to try to get a reaction from people. Thankfully, we don't see a ton of that. But we give players tools to deal with that when they see it. We can talk about that in a second. There's an additional element to harassment in VR, which is a much more physical style of harassment, which I find a lot of people find it counter-intuitive that this exists if they haven't really spent much time in social VR, it can be a little hard to believe how intense the feeling of being physically harassed can be. When someone kind of invades your personal space in VR, or when someone gropes at your personal areas, or in any way impinges on your sense of autonomy, it feels real in a way that a non-VR game doesn't, and it triggers something in your primal brain where you're like, "Whoa, get off me." It can get quite a strong involuntary response of just like, "Nope, I just want out of there," even though fundamentally, you are safe in the sense that no one can punch you, you're not going to end up with a bruise or a cut. [00:19:48.07] But having a fairly traumatic experience of someone coming at you is really quite unpleasant and I certainly don't like it. I don't like when someone gets up in my face in VR. Acknowledging that reality and seeing that was a really powerful phenomenon we knew we needed to take seriously building in tools to rec room, right from the get go, and maintaining them on a month by month basis to make sure that we minimize that to the maximum extent possible.
[00:20:12.21] SY: Do you feel like people are more likely to physically harass in VR because there's a limitation to how much damage they can really do, so they don't take it as seriously?
CB: I'm not sure that people are thinking about it in those intellectual terms, like it's harmless, therefore I'll go harass people. I think really, really malicious harassment, where people are really out to upset somebody is relatively rare - I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but it's relatively rare. I think a lot of the physical harassment is actually well-intentioned and it's someone being a little too rambunctious -
[00:20:45.16] SY: Right, yeah!
CB: Just not really understanding the impact they're having, and maybe missing some of the signals. And like you said, you don't have some of the subtle signals coming back and when people are feeling overwhelmed, they're not always good at saying, hey, back off. They're trying to figure out what to do and how to adjust the situation. So I think a lot of it is just the confusion of the moment and people not understanding each other's mental state or not understanding this is someone new to rec room and doesn't understand how to operate things so well. I understand that the power of physical harassment in VR is that it triggers something in the primal brain that really removes your autonomy. When that fight or flight response kicks in, you're not really thinking at that moment, you're just like, ugh, I've got to do something. So our goal is to keep any harassment you may feel, or any sense of someone impinging on your physical space - keep it above the threshold where your primal brain kicks in. That's our goal.
[00:21:37.17] SY: Yeah, yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And it was so interesting because when I played rec room last, this person's avatar came up to me and started waving a stick in my face. And it was a weird experience because on the one hand I'm thinking, this person is in my space and I don't like it. It made me very uncomfortable. But on the other hand, I'm looking at this person and I'm thinking, what do you think is going to happen? It's a fake stick! It's a fake world! Why? What do you hope to accomplish in this situation? And I'm also thinking, at any point, I can just leave, I can just run away way faster than I can in the real world. I'm one click away from getting out of here. So, the whole situation felt at the same time very uncomfortable, but also very solvable.
[00:22:17.12] CB: Right.
[00:22:21.01] And something we think really helps reduce the amount of physical harassment we see is essentially taking the fun out of it for the person doing it. Because if they're doing it intentionally, they're doing it to see the reaction - that's what's going to bring them joy in the moment, is like "Ha ha ha, I freaked you out." And so, an example of something we've built for this is we have something what we call "the ignore bubble." This is something that's on by default. And what it means is that when things get close to you, so I think the default is something around a meter - if you imagine a sphere of a meter around you - anything that enters that sphere just fades out when it approaches you. So whether it's someone's head, or whether it's someone's hand, or whether it's a stick that they're poking at you - any of those things will kind of just fade out, and it just limits - again, like I said, it's keeping you above that primal threshold. You're intellectually aware that someone's waving something at you, but you don't feel threatened, you don't feel like something's about to hit you, you don't flinch away from it -
[00:23:13.18] Exactly, yeah. And I think that was the big reason why I was able to intellectualize it before I freaked out. Because I had that - that bubble was on - (laughs). It's funny, I said to my husband, I said "Is he waving a stick at me?" because I couldn't actually see it in my face, I could just see half of it waving around in my direction, so yeah, that really, really helped me out.
[00:23:32.05] I think that's a perfect example. If you look at that interaction from - let's say that that was an intentional troll whose goal was "ha ha, I'm going to freak this person out," from their perspective, they're coming up at you and they're waving the stick in your face - and your reaction is kind of more puzzlement than shock. You're just kind of like "What are you doing, dude?" And that's not a very fun reaction and it doesn't really inspire you to keep doing it. So, what we hope is that by having those tools in place, it will drain the fun out of being a troll and you can then go and have fun in ways that are a little more socially constructive.
[00:24:03.01] Yeah. And another tool that you have that I think is fairly recently updated is the talk to the hand feature. Can you tell us about that?
[00:24:11.08] Yeah, so the talk to the hand feature - that's something that evolved over time from many, many failed experiments. What do you do with someone who just wants to say things to you that you really don't want to hear, or is really insistent in getting up in your face? No matter how much we want to create a fun and welcoming environment, we're talking about an app that has players 24/7 from around the world. There are going to be some incompatible personalities. Not everyone is going to love everyone else. So, there needs to be a way to "Eh, I just don't want to deal with this person." And I think that would be a wonderful thing in the real world sometimes if you could just go - "Let's just remove that person from my reality." So we went through a few different versions of that. One of the first things we did was we had this thing that we called Ghost Mode. Basically, you would press and hold a button on the controller, and it would kind of charge up for two seconds, and it would go "buuuu" and it would be this exciting EMP pulse, like "uuuu." Our idea was let's make you feel powerful and let's have this kind of thing that expands out. The shell would expand out from you, and anyone outside the shell would be turned into a ghost. So, they would turn into this kind of goofy-looking cartoon ghost with no hands, they would be translucent so that they couldn't really block your view and stuff like that. And we thought - we're like, let's make you feel powerful, and we'll make the people who were getting in your face feel less powerful. [00:25:28.24] And we had that live for a month or so. And it had a bunch of problems, honestly. That one didn't really work out. In the first place, the ghost imagery was mainly just confusing to people. They were fairly cute and people were like, "Am I meant to play with them?" Like, "Is this pacman? What's happening here?"
[00:25:44.04] They were cute. I did see them. They were adorable. (laughs)
[00:25:45.25] They were pretty cute. And also, another problem, and I think a bigger problem was that it was a purely reactive system, and it put the burden on the person who was feeling pressured in the moment, you had to remember to press a button, you had to remember to hold it down, you had to understand what was happening. And what we found was that, just in the moment, people just got flustered and forgot about it, if they knew about it at all. That's actually a whole other topic we should talk about - something else we need to do a good job of is making sure people know about the features we have to help them. Eventually we're just like, ugh this isn't working, so we tried a simpler system where you could just ignore and mute people. So if someone was just kind of getting up in your face or saying things you didn't want to hear, you could look at your watch, and that would give you a list of people, and you could find that person in the list and you could press a couple of buttons and that could mute them, so you couldn't hear them anymore, and it would ignore them, so it would fade them out and make them barely visible. [00:26:39.26] And that would be a mutual thing, so you would actually disappear for them as well, so that was kind of a mutual ignore. And that was better, that was easier for people to remember. But there's actually a really interesting story about this and why we knew we had to go further. We had a report from a female player, who said she'd been harassed in rec room. She contacted us and we're very grateful for anyone who contacts us and tell us their experience 'cause like, I think for every one thing we hear about, there's probably ten we don't. And she was like yeah, this guy was getting in my face, and he was kind of groping at me, and it was kind of gross, and she was there with friends, she had a couple other friends with her, and they knew how to use the muting and ignoring features, and so they started using that, which was the way the system worked at the time, that was the correct response, let's mute and ignore this person. But what she saw from her perspective was the friends that were with her, who were aware of the situation and had her back - they disengaged from the situation, and they looked away from her and they started digging through a menu and jabbing at buttons, and for her, it felt like oh man, my support just disappeared. And no one's here with me in the moment. And we kind of realized, it's a subtle thing but it's like, what you want is you want to feel like the people with you are with you, and you're in it together and they were disengaging from the situation. This is something we had never thought about in the design process and it wasn't until we had it live and we started seeing that in real time, we were like "Oh, yeah, ok." We don't want people disappearing into a menu. You want to stay engaged with the present moment, so we want to give you a tool that will help with that. So we started thinking about, well, something that people really love in rec room and that we really love in rec room is the kind of social gestures. [00:28:16.11] So we have a fist bump that you do to create a party, you shake hands to make friends -
SY: Oh cool, yeah.
[00:28:20.05] You can high five in one of the games - that basically revives a player who's been downed in one of our adventure games. So we're like, maybe there's a gesture we can do. It took a while and we did all kinds of experiments, and actually it was a friend of ours called Nick Angel who designed our wonderful Against Gravity logo, he just casually suggested - what about talk to the hand? That has a connotation of like Stop! And as soon as he said it I was like, oh we are trying that. That makes a ton of sense. So yeah, we went back to the studio and we prototyped it - that shipped and has been a pretty popular feature that gets a fair bit of use. And now, if someone's saying stuff to you or behaving in a way that you don't want to deal with, you just put your hand up in the stop gesture, the talk to the hand gesture, you hold it there for a minute, you see a tick tick tick tick tick, and they are muted and ignored and you get an option to report them, and it also can initiate what we call a vote kick. So, we have a system where if someone's in a room and you've got one person who's being really disruptive or not playing the game the way it's intended or just, for whatever reason is not being a positive social presence in that context, the other players can initiate a vote kick and say hey, let's vote kick to remove such and such a person. And everyone else will get an opportunity to vote on that.
[00:29:32.18] SY: Very cool, yeah.
We've integrated all of that into the stop gesture. So, with this one gesture, you mute them, you ignore them, and you can optionally report them and vote kick them. So, that so far has been a pretty good solution.
[00:29:44.28] Next, we'll talk about what product development looks like when building moderation features. I also tell a story about an unpleasant race-related experience I have in the game, and Cameron shares how his experience at Burning Man was influential in how he thinks about community.
[00:29:59.03] CB: You know, that radical inclusion principle was pretty inspiring.
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[00:32:06.20] CB: Generally speaking with rec room, we treat our moderation features the same way we treat any of our features in that we tend to have less of a formal design process and we sort of optimize for let's get it out fast and let's learn in public. So this is very much the true minimum viable product spirit, where it's like what's the absolute minimum version of this you can build to get it in front of actual players or customers or users as quickly as possible. A book called the Lean Start-Up by Eric Reese was -
[00:32:36.20] SY: Yeah, great book.
CB: Great book, and he said something in that book that really resonated with us which was like, you'll know you're doing MVP - minimum viable product - right if you feel a bit embarrassed by what you're shipping. And sure enough, with a lot of our features, it's like oof, this is really the bare minimum.
[00:32:53.13] SY: This is rough. (Laughs)
CB: Yeah, exactly. And we've learned, we've trained ourselves that that feeling is a positive signal - if we've got a little bit of resistance - we've got our developer pride is telling us not to do this, we'll actually actively override ourselves on that and push it out and man, every time we do, we're glad we did, because we learn so much from having the basic version out there that we would have wasted weeks or months polishing up something that players were confused by or didn't want to use. And very often the players by the way they interact with the feature and sometimes just explicitly on the forums or in the town halls that we do, they'll just come up with suggestions for how to make it better and we're like, that's genius, we're doing that. (Laughs).
[00:33:33.17] SY: Mm hm, mm hm. So, I figured, to find out whether it works or not, you kind of have to rely on people telling you, right? Either via the town hall, or contacting you directly, or how would you know?
[00:33:45.26] CB: Yeah, so definitely the way we kind of measure success is a mixture of the sentiment from the community - what's the buzz on the forums, what are people direct messaging us about, what are they taking the time to contact us about. We have a support@againstgravity email address where people can just email us anything, and we do have a very high touch relationship with the community, but we also have analytics in the game. Most of that is directed towards which game modes are the most popular and how long do people spend in them, and we learn that our paintball mode is one of our most popular modes because we can see that a lot of players were spending a lot of time and that influences our decision, well we're going to invest more resources into developing that. And it's the same with developing reports and talk to the hand gestures, the number of times that people mute and ignore - we track all of that. We have a database so we can kind of see which players are getting reported a ton, which players are getting ignored a ton, which players are victims of talk to the hand gesture. And so, generally speaking, we do track information about how often those anti-harassment and moderation features are used. And we will - we apply an increasingly severe suspension to accounts when they attract too many reports. So, if you get vote kicked or reported too many times, you essentially get a timeout in the dorm room. That starts as a slap on the wrist, it's like thirty seconds, but if it happens again, it's going to be five minutes, and then it's an hour, and before you know it, it's like several days. And at that point, we'll intervene and start taking a look, and we may choose to issue a longer suspension or even a ban.
[00:35:13.00] SY: How do you measure the welcoming nature of the community as a whole? Because I imagine, even if every individual person is protected, if every single time I go in I have to protect myself, that doesn't necessarily mean the entire place is kind. So, how do you measure the success of the spirit of the whole system?
[00:35:27.25] CB: So, I think on that one we do rely on a more qualitative measure. Something we look at it is what is the diversity of our player base. Early on in our conversation, we talked about our goal is to make a fun and welcoming environment for people of all walks of life. And so that means, if we don't see any female players, it's a pretty safe bet to say this doesn't feel like a great experience for female players. That's something we try to keep an eye on to the best of our ability. It's something we talk to a lot with our highly engaged players who are often a good proxy for our less engaged players. And we definitely try and proactively reach out to our female players and be like, "How's our driving, tell us what we could be doing better, what's your experience?" And we'll look at - what's the retention of those players like? Are they sticking around with us? Or are they coming for a few sessions and we never see them again? If we see a pattern that a certain class of user isn't coming back, that'll trigger us to investigate why.
[00:36:25.16] SY: So, a lot of the tools we talked about are about protecting the user and making sure that I feel safe. Are there any tools that you hope end up teaching the bad actors not to be so bad? Is there an opportunity to show people the appropriate way to act and behave in this environment?
[00:36:45.28] CB: One thing we have in place, that we've been really glad we put in place since day one, is we have our code of conduct, which we make visible in rec room, we make visible on all of our social media sites, on our website. And that dorm room you load into, it's very prominently placed next to the door. And that was really inspired by - when we're thinking of making rec room, and we knew we wanted to do a social VR environment for people to coexist in, we thought to ourselves, who does a good job of this? Who welcomes people from all walks of life? One that really resonated with us because of the very active nature of rec room and the fact that you tend to play fairly active games, was the YMCA.
[00:37:27.25] SY: Oh, yeah.
CB: And we literally went on a field trip to the YMCA and kind of went in and looked and noticed that one prominent thing that they had - they had a code of conduct. And it really just literally set the rules of hey, here's what's ok here, set the tone. And it was like different, it's not the same as ours - they have, "No running around the swimming pool," but it was really a convenient tool and a really simple tool that we were inspired by. So we wrote our own code of conduct and we've had it in place since day one. And that's definitely something - I sometimes give a talk on social VR, and that's one of my key things I try and say. If you're going to create a virtual space online for people to interact with, I would strongly encourage that you have a code of conduct. It could be tighter than ours, it could be looser than ours, but I think it's a really great tool, because players can literally point to it. And we have a clipboard in the game that players can pick up, and it has the rules on it, and they can say, hey look! Rule number one or rule number two - no sexually explicit behavior in the public areas. So it kind of gives them a tool to be like, hey I'm not making this up, this is not me imposing my personal thing on you. This is the rules of rec room. And we've found that to be a very powerful tool for setting the tone and giving us language to talk about, so when we do want to intervene or talk to a player about some of their conduct, we'll almost always frame that in the context of the code of conduct. Because, to be fair, to any player it makes it so much easier for us and for them if we've taken the time to go, hey, here's the ground rules, how can we expect them to know what's ok and what's not ok if we haven't told them?
[00:38:53.04] SY: And what I really like about the last line in the code of conduct, is it reads, "We don't want to implement a million rules to control your behavior in every game. Don't make us." And I just love the "don't make us" part because it's like we will if we have to! We are ready to step in. And I think code of conducts, thankfully, are more common and more popular, and it's pretty expected to have one, especially if you have a conference or an event or some kind of explicitly social activity, but I also feel like at times they're kind of half-hearted, there's no clear reporting system in it, it's just there to say that you have one. And when I read your code of conduct, I thought, oh no, they mean business, this is real.
[00:39:30.15] CB: I'd be the last person to say we do a perfect job of this, and I think there's always reasonable cases to be made that we should be a little more lenient in some direction or a little more strict in other directions. This is something that we need to spend time and money on, and I haven't actually gone in and measured it, but we just generally think of it as ten percent tax on everything we do is thinking about the moderation and social implications of it. And that's a tax that we pay very willingly because I think the reward is a fun and welcoming environment for people from all walks of life.
[00:40:00.12] SY: And what I found really interesting about you specifically, is when I was reading into your background, you've been in games for a while, but you're also technical, you're a developer and you program and you do technical things. And I find that a lot of times when there are people who are the community managers of certain communities, that it's seen as something separate from developing the product. There's the product people who are the hard-core programmers and coders and we build the features, and then there's one or two people who are non-technical who they just think about like the feelings of stuff, and it's not always seen as the real responsibility of the tech team. And it sounds like your team at rec room looks at that differently.
[00:40:43.24] CB: I guess so. Some of that might just be a function of - we're a relatively small team, so we all wear multiple hats. So I've kind of been our de facto community manager, and I should clarify - I am technical and I do do some programming, but I am a very terrible programmer and all of the hard and cool stuff is done by our very talented engineers. But it's interesting because we actually just hired a new rec room team member. His title is community designer.
[00:41:13.27] SY: Ooh!
CB: It's a good problem to have, the rec room community is growing and we're expanding to new platforms, and it was kind of getting to a point where I could spend all of my available waking hours doing community management for the rec room community - which I love to do, it's a great joy to me. But it was starting to be the only thing I could do. So we realized we needed to bring on someone to help with that. So we're hired Sean, who's our community designer,And we ended up calling him community designer rather than community manager because we realized that we get great value interacting very closely with the community, and we think they enjoy it too, and they certainly tell us that they enjoy it. And we thought about it in terms of - if you've got a band that you like, it's one thing to meet the band manager and talk to the person who books the venues and stuff, and it's really something else to meet the guitarist or the bass player or the lead singer. You really want to interact with the band, not the band manager. We felt like we didn't want to hire a community manager, we wanted to hire someone who's on the dev team -
[00:42:03.09] SY: Exactly.
CB: Who contributes materially to what rec room is, and then he can speak for the community as a developer, not as a community manager.
[00:42:14.11] SY: Exactly, exactly. That's awesome. So, one of the things that I found really interesting, I had an experience in rec room, I think it was back in February or earlier this year. My husband and I have the HC5, we love it to death, every time we have an opportunity to show a friend, we make them put on the headset and show them a couple demos. And so we decided to show our friend rec room. And as soon as - and I mentioned my husband is a black man - so his avatar is a black man, and as soon as we entered, there were these two white avatars, and one of them yelled, "Oh look, it's a Negro!" And started saying like, "We don't want your kind here" and this other guy was kind of laughing and we immediately exited as fast as we could. And there were two things there - one is, that's not a fun experience in general, but two, the other interesting thing for me was - if that had happened to me in real life. If I went to someone's house or a new neighborhood and I had that interaction, I would've been terrified, and my reaction would've been "Oh my god, I'm not safe here, I need to run away, I need to get out of here as soon as possible." My reaction in that space was different. It was, "You don't own this land. This is not your space to tell me that I need to leave." It created a very, very different dynamic. And I think it's because in the real world, there's always a relationship between an owner and a visitor, in physical land. There's always this is my neighborhood, my home, my country - there's always a "my." And you can be the foreigner, the outsider, the visitor. But in virtual reality, where the reality is fake, no one really owns that property. So, I didn't feel as scared as I would have. I felt indignant. I felt angry that that person felt that they had a right to a space that they did not own in any context. So, I'm wondering - have you seen different social dynamics happen as a result of it just being a fake space?
[00:44:18.16] CB: Such a good question, and not one that I've been asked before. So let me back up and say - I hate to hear that. We do hear reports of discriminatory language from time to time, and that is exactly what we're trying to avoid with code of conduct. So that's like - those players were in violation of our code of conduct and that's a failure of our system, you know? In terms of feeling indignant - a, I agree with you. The optimist in me sees social VR as an opportunity to move away a little bit from the real world, and kind of reset the expectations of interaction and the expectations of who gets to be what in what context. We're pushing rec room into allowing players to host their own gatherings. For the first year or so of rec room, we created games for you to play and people create their own social contexts because it's like, "Hey, come and play paintball with me, come and play disc golf with me, come play charades with me," but we've watched the players create their own activities increasingly and create their own social contexts. So that's something we're working towards supporting in a more robust way. And I think that's going to lead to some interesting both challenges but also experiments and hopefully some wonderful new dynamics in that people can host their own space and kind of claim this infinite territory of social VR as their own and kind of go, hey, I'm going to create this gathering, it's going to have this kind of tone to it, and there's a sense of competition, like if you don't like that gathering, you can make your own gathering.
[00:45:42.08] SY: Exactly.
CB: You know, there’s not really any kind of hierarchy there where one gathering is privileged over another.
SY: And I do want to mention that even though this entire conversation has been about harassment and moderation and stuff, rec room is the most popular multi-player game, I believe. And you all do a fantastic job, and I think I read you have the rare overwhelmingly positive designation in your review, so overall it sounds like you're doing an absolutely amazing job.
[00:46:10.09] CB: We don't mind dwelling on the exceptions to the rule. Most people are wonderful and most people are really there to have fun and have fun with others. We do tend to dwell on the negative and the exceptions, because you have to look at this stuff with open eyes, and that's the only way you're going to improve it as much as possible. We don't think it'll ever be perfect, but we're going to get as close as we can.
[00:46:32.09] SY: Yeah, yeah, for sure.
CB: We have a phrase that we say, sometimes rudely, to each other in the studio, which is "Human's gonna human." That's our go-to phrase. Every so often - "Well, human's gonna human."
[00:46:46.16] SY: That should be on a shirt or a mug. That would be a good one, I like that. So one thing that I knew about you just from what I read and saw online, but it's so clear just from hearing you answer these questions and I just hear it in your voice. You really, really care about this community stuff. Like, you're really passionate about it. It's really easy to see something like this as a responsibility, but not really something that you want to do. You want to build cool games and quests and that kind of stuff, but the moderation part can seem like a chore. But from the way you talk about it and just your voice, it really sounds like something you're passionate about. Where does that passion come from?
[00:47:25.27] CB: You know, that's a good question. (Laughs). I'm not sure I know how to answer that questions. So, what jumps into my mind, my professional life has been making games and making various kinds of software and stuff like that. But something that I've done with a good friend of mine down in LA is, he basically introduced me to Burning Man, which is the giant arts festival in the desert that happens once a year. He kind of roped me into making all sorts of crazy art projects out in the desert, so I would go to Burning Man really for the physical art projects, so they're constructing giant sculptures in the desert, and all that kind of stuff, which is amazingly fun, but I got to say, Burning Man is an experiment with creating an alternative culture which has really interesting principles to it, and that I found really fascinated me. I hadn't really thought about it - I was there for the art projects, but something about the experiment in community aspect of Burning Man - so Burning Man had these principles, one of which was radical inclusion, so this notion that whatever you may think may be the default world - what they call the world outside Burning Man -
[00:48:28.16] SY: The default world, that's amazing -
[00:48:30.13] CB: The default world, yeah. You should have an attitude of radical inclusion, so you should interact with people maybe you wouldn't normally interact with. So what that means is that everyone at Burning Man is very open, and you end of meeting people who you wouldn't necessarily cross paths with, and having really interesting conversations. And I found that really influential - and it was really inspirational to see that people could be that way - they could be much more open than they might be in a typical day to day interaction. And I don't know - I wouldn't say that's the inspiration for why I'm interested in this stuff, but it definitely was influential, it was kind of got my brain ticking on like, wow, there's really different ways to think about this stuff, and seeing how amazing the culture of Burning Man could be at it's best - like everything, Burning Man has its issues as well as its amazing aspects - but at its best, that radical inclusion principle was pretty inspiring and gives me hope that something like rec room really could welcome people from all around the world. And if we can build it right and nurture it right - and I really should say too, actually, the thing that makes it such a joy is the community. The players of rec room are so amazing, and so creative, and we're constantly amazed by how positive they are and how creative they are. It really makes it a joy for us. We just love watching them interact with each other and use the tools that they provide. That is inspiration enough, even by itself.
[00:49:50.29] SY: So now let's move on to some fill in the blanks. Are you ready?
[00:49:53.27] CB: Uh, sure, yeah.
[00:49:54.18] SY: Number one. Worst advice I've ever received is?
[00:49:57.09] CB: So, I think the worst advice I've ever received is scrap it and start over. You've got an existing system you're working on and it's got a lot of craft, a lot of old code that you wrote two years ago when you weren't really sure how it should work, or maybe it's written in an old language that's hard to maintain, or it's three versions old, or it's all stuck together with duct tape. And you get into this thing where it's like, ugh, this system is so frustrating, and we could make this new system and it could be faster and simpler and it would have all these new features. And the future always looks really perfect and utopian, but I think some of the worst advice I've ever heard is throw away this working system, as messy and as half-baked as it may seem, throw it away and start from scratch going after this new perfect solution, because it's easy to undervalue the fact that it works. That's 80% of the challenge, is something that actually solves the problem.
[00:50:48.14] SY: Yeah, very true. Yeah, I think I'm definitely one to be very excited about throwing things away and starting from scratch, and a lot of times I'm like, ugh, I didn't really need to do that. So, I'm with you on that. Number two - my first coding project was about?
[00:51:02.12] CB: It was about skiing. Yeah, I made - growing up in Australia, we were a commodore country, like the UK. I think in America it's more common to have an apple 2, if you're my age, but yeah, I had a vic 20 and then a commodore 64, and my first game was all made out of _ characters - little asterisks for snowflakes, and you had to ski down a mountain, and it was all written in basic, and it was absolutely terrible, and you would press keys to go left and write. Now that I'm thinking about it, the first ever thing I made was a game.
[00:51:33.19] SY: Yeah! See, full circle.
CB: Should've seen this coming.
SY: Yeah. Number three - one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is.
[00:51:40.15] CB: I wish I knew that there's not really always an obvious right way to do it. There's usually many ways to do any given thing. Like I said, I'm not actually a very good programmer, and people should be cautious about taking programming advice from me, but I have worked with many amazing programmers and I think they would co sign what I'm about to say - I wish I knew not to get hung up on the perfect solution. I would always be like, ugh, there's some perfect way to do this that some kind of like celestial council of programmers would nod their heads sagely and go, yes, this is correct. Really, what I found is very often there's a lot of ways to do it, a lot of tools you could use, and the way I've learned to code and the way I've increased my skills the most is in the context of a project. My learning style is not so much structured learning - it's much more learn by doing. I always find it's best to have a project which kind of creates a deadline and a need and a set of constraints. We're signed up to do this project, which I've done some coding for Burning Man art projects - I signed up to control a couple of hundred feet of LEDs and flame jets, not knowing the first thing about how to do that. I was just like, yup, alright, I'll do that. By doing that, I learned how to use python, I learned how to use the input/output pins on a raspberry pie that I'd never used before. And it was just because, well, I said I could do it, now I better figure out how to do it. And it kind of cures you of that looking for the perfect solution - you just don't get precious about it. You're like, this works, I don't know if this is the sexiest language ever, or it's the latest language, or the mathematically best way to do this, but you know what, it works, moving on.
[00:53:18.17] SY: Yeah, I think I totally agree with you. I think I obsessed way to much over - am I doing it the right way, and how do I know it's the right way. If it's not the way, then it must be the wrong way. Now I'm much more appreciative of the fact that usually there are a lot of ways to do it and most of those ways are valid.
[00:53:37.17] CB: Exactly. The best programmers I've worked with are ones that I would describe as pragmatic. There is a time to really go deep and to really write something in the most efficient, perfect way possible, and they know when there's a time to just hack things together and just make it work. A lot of the skill is just identifying when to use which of those extremes.
[00:53:56.15] SY: Cool. Thank you so much for being on the show - you want to say goodbye?
[00:53:59.19] CB: Absolutely. Thank you for having me - I want to say that this was, I love podcasts, I listen to a bunch of podcasts, and this is the first podcast I've ever been on, and it was really fun. So thank you for having me.
[00:54:09.26] SY: Yay! Awesome. You did an amazing job, you're really, really good, so thank you so much. I appreciate it. And that's the end of our second episode of Season One - let me know what you think. Tweet me @codenewbies, with an s, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, if you're in DC or Philly, check out our local Code Newbie meetups, we've got community coding sessions and awesome events each month. So, if you're looking for real-life coding interaction, look us up at meetup.com. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast, and join us for our weekly Twitter chats. We've got our Wednesday chats at 9 PM EST time, and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 PM EST. Thanks for listening, see you next week.
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