Women in VR: Out With The Old And In With The New Inclusivity


At a time when male-dominated Hollywood is getting a plethora of bad press for its inappropriate treatment of women, the newly established virtual reality (VR) community is emerging as a place where women are welcomed and are gaining leadership positions.

While not perfectly balanced, females are thriving in entertainment VR more than other areas of Hollywood, where the traditional old-school boys club is par for the course. However, VR isn't perfect. Female executives in this new industry have unfortunately encountered harassment in the workplace, as evidenced by the Upload case, but the unsafe working conditions were quickly called out. When the woman, in that case, came forward, she received strong support within the VR community for speaking out.

In entertainment VR, we create immersive experiences and stories that need to resonate with a wider audience to be successful. While young male gamers are low hanging fruit, our racially diverse staff -- which includes a significant female contingent -- works together to craft experiences that will reach a mass audience.

My company SunnyBoy Entertainment creates the VR experiences for blockbusters like IT The Movie, The Greatest Showman and Annabelle--experiences which are designed to help drive mass audiences to the films.

Why are women thriving in VR?

VR is often talked about as being an empathy machine and there are a lot of great examples of ways VR experiences can evoke empathy. VR allows people to literally step into someone else's shoes and experience what it's like to be in a world that is foreign to them - like being a prisoner, a racial minority or a young lion.

VR is a powerful storytelling tool that can evoke depths of emotion and empathy because it's immersive. At the same time - and what is often not talked about - is that VR can also, if not steered in the right direction, be another digital technology that isolates us from each other. This danger is something Sheryl Turkle, an MIT psychologist has explored and suggested.

By surrendering our lives to technology, Turkle argued, “we're letting it take us places that we don't want to go." Where we used to be engaged, she argues, we are now distracted. Where there used to be conversation, there is now mere connection.

While I don't want to stereotype women - or men - it's fair to say that women have the ability to create environments that cultivate empathy a bit more naturally. I believe that the brilliant strength of women is we tend to be more collaborative, inclusive and aware of multiple points of view. We want others to be seen.

Recently, in development of one of our original projects, I am the consistent voice asking the team to remember emotion. What do we want audiences to feel? How can we get them to connect emotionally with our characters? My voice has been the compass that continues to point us back to the world and experience we're creating. Perhaps our team, with its female component, is better able to bring our audience in and help them connect with the characters than it would be if it were all male. And to help them connect in an authentic, natural, immersive, inspiring way.

What is the Future for Women in VR?

Women in VR will play a big role in steering this incredible new storytelling tool toward being the empathy machine that it can potentially be. This is not to say men will not also help in this endeavor, as they will and they are (I work with some of them!). My hope is that the rising voice and presence of women in VR will be the conscience of the industry, leading virtual reality to be the best art form it can be - one that brings us together rather than pushing us apart.

There are more women creators bringing their talents to story, tech and business development in this corner of emerging Hollywood. Their talents, voice, and experience must be celebrated and welcomed. The collaborative nature of the VR community - similar to that of tech startups - provides an environment where every voice should be welcomed because it's an asset to have a balanced team, with different perspectives. This serves both the creative product and business development.

A lot of the VR work we've done has been horror. While we create amazing horror VR, this genre can cause cognitive dissonance as a creator as it sometimes teeters on the line of taking advantage of the empathy side of VR. As we were developing It: Escape from Pennywise, I encouraged the team to think of how we can make this experience more of a personal journey for the user. In the end, we crafted the experience so that in order to escape, the viewer has to face their own fears. Spoiler alert, the path that gives you freedom is the one where you face that which scares you the most.

On another front, recently we released a 360 behind-the-scenes piece for the Hugh Jackman film The Greatest Showman. When this was first conceived, our Fox client - also a woman in VR - was pushing to get our 360 camera on the set so we could create the ultimate VIP backstage pass for audiences where viewers are able to completely immerse themselves in the on-set experience. She had the vision to see how great it would be if viewers were placed directly in the middle of the creation of the uplifting musical number, 'Come Alive.' This is a one of a kind piece really utilizing the headset experience for what it is best suited for - putting yourself in the unique position of being one of the cast on the set of a big motion picture.

In VR, we are creating immersive experiences and stories that resonate with a wide-ranging audience. Grasping our nascent industry's chance to move away from traditional gender stereotypes, we can embrace bringing in more voices that represent and mirror the reality of our expanding, diverse VR audience.