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.

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Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.

When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.