Human-Computer Interaction and Male-centred Design in Virtual Reality Software and Hardware

On the 4th of October, I attended a lecture titled “UI and Male-Centred Design with Kenneth

Boyd”. The talk explored many common mistakes in UX and UI design, and in particular how many

decisions fail to account for women’s experiences. I personally found the discussion very interesting.

It led me to do some research on some examples of male-centred design I remembered from previous readings. I believe this provides a clear example of how male-centred design can manifest

itself in the fields of Computer Science, in this case, Virtual Reality (VR) software and hardware.


The intersection of male-centred design and Human-Computer Interaction is one that is

unfortunately not lacking in examples. Take, for instance, the case of the VR game Resident Evil 4. In

it, users can add items to be in front of them for ease of access. As this is a shooter, having good

access to these items is a deciding factor in both immersion and making the gameplay satisfying.

What was discovered post-launch was that some women players were punching their own chests

when trying to pick these items up (Heaton, 2021). This breaks the immersion of the game (it

reminds the player of the dissonance between the physical world and the virtual world) and leads to

the more important problem of making such a mechanic dangerous. If a player is in a high-stress

situation in the game, and they try to do this, they might try to quickly grab their item, punch

themselves, and thus hurt themselves.


Fortunately, the women who experience this issue have suggested their own solutions for

this problem: accounting for different body types and adjusting accordingly in an in-game menu.

Whilst this might be a straightforward enough fix (ignoring the actual difficulty of implementing

such a solution), there is another way to make sure that this issue would not occur post-launch.

Having people of different body types (tall, short, women, men, etc) in Quality Assurance testing.

Whilst in normal video game production this might not be of such a concern unless designing new

hardware perhaps, VR is in a unique position in which both human interaction with hardware and

software is inherently shaped by the physical world. This makes the concern of accessibility doubly

important (this isn’t even beginning to mention questions of accessibility to those with physical

disabilities). Commercial VR software, and in particular commercial VR video game software, is a

very new field and as such these hurdles are bound to appear due to design decisions that were

unquestioned before. But if we want to allow for as many people as possible to participate, then it

requires thinking about different physical obstacles to interacting with the virtual world from the

beginning of the design process, not as an afterthought.


To highlight the point about hardware more specifically: women who use VR are more likely

to get “cybersickness” than men (Stanney et al., 2020; Allen, et al. 2016). This appears to be due to

two reasons. The first being that women tend to have different “interpupillary distance” (IPD) on

average, which some VR headsets might not account for well. As evidence for this, once in the

experiment by Stanney et al. they did manage to adjust the headsets by the on-average difference in

IPD, it led to a similar likelihood of cybersickness in men. The second reason possibly is that as

Allen et al. suggest (though their study was not directly aiming to measure this), the women in their

experiment were more likely to quit early which was likely due to women performing better at “3D

motion tasks”, and thus being better at feeling the dissonance between what their eyes were seeing

and their physical-world balance.


These studies, though perhaps of small sample size, do indicate that this is a good direction

for future research. The video games industry, and VR more specifically, serve as particularly clear

examples of male-centred design and how we create software and hardware. Due the inherently

necessary property of immersion (interacting with the software so naturally you forget you are

interfacing through hardware), these issues become more noticeable than otherwise. But this

introduces difficulties: software in this day and age can be updated with some sort of frequency, but

hardware is much harder to update. To fix the aforementioned issues, this would require more

research into designs that accommodate both men and women, and then the replacement of the

current models. It would not be a cheap thing to do.


That all being said, it is nonetheless necessary. The more research is done into this area the

more specific and targeted the necessary changes become, and thus the clearer the ideal final

product becomes: one where the differences in software and hardware experiences between men

and women are negligible.





Bibliography:

Heaton, A. P. (2021) Resident Evil 4 VR Has Design Flaw That is Causing Female Gamers Some

Discomfort: GameRant. Available at: https://gamerant.com/resident-evil-4-vr-design-flaw-female-

gamer-discomfort/.

Stanney, K., Fidopiastis, C. and Foster, L. (2020) 'Virtual Reality Is Sexist: But It Does Not Have to Be',

Frontiers in Robotics and AI, 7. doi: 10.3389/frobt.2020.00004

Allen, B., Hanley, T., Rokers, B. and Green, C. S. (2016) 'Visual 3D motion acuity predicts discomfort

in 3D stereoscopic environmen', Entertainment Computing, 13. doi:

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.entcom.2016.01.001