Within the first month of Meta’s launch in 2021, a beta tester reported to Meta that she had been randomly groped by a stranger on Horizon Worlds, Meta’s virtual reality platform. She later posted her experience in the Horizon Worlds beta testing group stating the following:
“Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense. Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior.…”
Despite the furor over this incident, Meta’s response to it borderlines on casual victim-blaming. On reviewing the incident, Vivek Sharma, Meta’s vice president of Horizon Worlds, said that the user should have utilized the safety feature i.e. the Safe Zone option on the VR platform.
The tool essentially puts you in a protective bubble and stops others from interacting with you until you come out of the bubble. With such a statement Meta is repackaging the misogynistic notion of telling women to stay at home if they get harassed or feel unsafe when they are walking down the street. Secondly, by advocating for the utilization of the Safe Zone feature, Meta is once again burdening the user with the responsibility of their safety, online as it is offline.
Sexual Harassment And Virtual Reality
Harassment and abuse are problems that have always existed as a byproduct of VR platforms. In 2016, a gamer described being groped on QuiVR, a similar VR platform. When the victim narrated the episode to the message board, instead of finding ways to reprimand the abuser, the message board debated whether or not she was actually groped, considering her physical body was not touched.
The main issue, as stated by Tanya Basu for MIT Technology Review, is that “There is nobody that’s plainly responsible for the rights and safety of those who participate anywhere online, let alone in virtual worlds.”
The only way forward when it comes to making VR platforms safe is acknowledging that virtual harassment albeit a digital construct can have a detrimental impact on the reality of the users, especially the victims of virtual abuse.
Making Virtual Reality Safe
At the end of the day, the biggest question remains, “Whose responsibility is it to keep digital avatars safe in virtual reality?”
Creators like Meta will conveniently try to push the blame onto the participants by advocating for their inbuilt tools that users should utilize to protect themselves.
The most recent incident reported by a U.K. based woman said that she was gang-raped by multiple male avatars within 60 seconds of joining Meta, even before she could turn on the safety feature. This further emphasizes the inadequate measures taken by VR platforms like Meta to keep their users safe.
Adding a Safe Zone or other UI tweaks won’t necessarily solve the underlying issue of harassment. In many cases, users may not even be aware of these features and may find themselves in such threatening situations.
As the metaverse becomes more sophisticated, such problems will continue to rise. For the time being, instead of putting the onus of safety on the users, VR platforms can place more deterrents and penalize aggressors on the platform.
In the end, the metaverse does seem like a lovely place to hang out. But virtual reality continues to replicate the unsafety of the real world, then users, especially women and other minorities, will need to take a hard pass on it.