The metaverse, in its entirety, is not the exciting digital reality we envision; it mimics the issues of the real world.
On December 1, 2021, Meta (formerly Facebook) revealed that a beta tester for their virtual reality (VR) platform, Horizon Worlds, was virtually groped. The incident took place on November 26, and the beta tester who was harassed has spoken out about the intensity of being harassed in the metaverse.
She says, “Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior, which made me feel isolated in the Plaza (the central gathering spot within Horizon Worlds)”.
While this might be the first-of-its-kind case of virtual harassment receiving the limelight, harassment on VR platforms isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2016, VR gamer, Jordan Belamire, blogged about how a fellow player in the game QuiVR, Bigbro442, rubbed her character’s chest. As per a 2018 survey, 49% of women and 36% of men who used VR at least twice a month reported being sexually harassed.
Let’s examine what virtual harassment is and what Meta is doing about this alarming problem within its metaverse.
What is virtual harassment, and how has it been addressed so far?
“What’s different about virtual environments is an extra layer of immersion. If you are being groped in the real world versus a virtual world, the visual stimuli do not differ,” says Jesse Fox, a professor who researches the social implications of virtual worlds at the Ohio State University. She suggests that, to someone immersed in the virtual world, it feels like the harassment is happening to their own body, and such a lifelike experience can be traumatizing.
Most VR gaming companies have blocking tools for players to block certain characters and report them as sexual offenders. However, that has proven to be futile in solving the larger problem at hand. These offenders simply move on from being blocked by one player to harassing another.
So, what is Meta doing?
Much like what we previously discussed, Meta has a similar blocking and reporting feature. It also allows users to enter a safe zone, which creates a protective bubble around the user. The safe zone prevents any other player from touching, talking to or interacting with you until you signal that you would like the safe zone to be lifted.
The Vice President of Horizon World, Vivek Sharma, says that they still need to work on making this feature easy to use and find. Meta has also pledged US$50 million to research the practical and ethical issues around its metaverse plans.
What should companies be doing?
Meta’s safe zone has been bashed for putting the onus of preventing harassment on users. The Guardian’s writer Arwa Mahdawi compared Meta’s actions to “telling women that if they don’t want to get harassed while walking down the street then they should just stay at home.”
Perhaps the inability to take significant moderation efforts shouldn’t entirely be considered Horizon World’s fault. Experts suggest that monitoring the actions of millions of users in real-time not only takes a lot of effort but might not even be possible.
So, till a systematic solution to protecting users from VR harassment is achieved, the only course of action is to discipline the aggressors. If they were banned or suspended from the platform, it would serve as a warning to any other aggressors that their actions would have consequences.
Header image courtesy of Freepik