The metaverse is a place where users can explore a virtual space and enjoy real-time interactions, but what happens when these interactions turn sinister?
While the immersive nature of virtual reality experiences can create a much-needed sense of escapism, what happens online can still impact real life. Most metaverse worlds allow the user to create an avatar, one that often resembles themselves. They can then use this avatar to explore the virtual world and socialise with others.
For the majority, these spaces act as a form of escapism, a way to unwind from the real world or make friends that otherwise would be inaccessible. Many metaverse titles also include gaming elements to enjoy or the ability to build in the virtual world. While for the most part, people set out to enjoy the entertainment value of these experiences, not everyone has pure intentions.
Harassment in the metaverse
Last year The New York Post reported that distributing sexual harassment acts was happening more frequently within the metaverse. For as long as online social spaces have existed, users have had to battle against negative interactions, be it bullying over text chat or using a platform that allows the use of voice chat.
Cyberbullying has become a huge issue across the internet. While many countries don’t regard it as a criminal offence, it can fall under the harassment umbrella. These issues can become very sinister; over the years we have seen reports of racism, false impersonation, and sexual harassment. While some have explored the idea of policing the metaverse, rules online are often very different from the real world.
One woman reported an instance where a group sexually harassed her on Horizon Worlds. The group yelled sexual remarks and intended to use their avatars to portray they had “virtually gang raped” the woman. This instance had no real-world repercussions and was not pursued legally.
Virtual vs Reality
Part of the issue with online interactions is the difference between what is considered real and what isn’t. In the case of cyberbullying, this has become more serious because harsh words said through a screen are just as hurtful as those said in person. Many people have become depressed or suicidal at the hands of serious cases of online bullying.
The metaverse takes these issues even further as users can use avatars as part of their expression. Because these sexual harassment acts taking place are happening to a virtual body within a virtual world, the laws that would usually apply become uncertain. This grey area enables users to act without the fear of any ramifications. Of course, most platforms offer a way to report incidents, however, even if these reports see results, it’s often just a ban from the platform with no real-world punishments.
This leads us to the heart of the issue, when do our actions in a virtual world lean too far into the real one? While legally our virtual worlds work in a grey area, it’s highly concerning that users not only feel that it is acceptable to be racist, bully, or sexually harass others but it’s a scary world when they can do so feeling safe of any serious repercussions. When a user who has been bullied or sexually harassed online takes off their VR headset, the experience doesn’t just go away. Those experiences stick.
Keeping safe online
Our online spaces are growing and the younger generation is spending more time online than any other. Therefore, it’s going to be incredibly important that those who build these platforms find a balance to ensure user safety while also respecting the right to privacy. As times change, it may even be that we see more laws come into place that targets the online world and how our actions there could be taken just as seriously as our actions in the real world.
As for now, it’s always important to check what safety measures a platform has to offer. Many services have parental controls that can add limits on who a user can interact with. Others such as Horizon Worlds have introduced a Personal Boundary tool. This means that a non-friend user will remain by default, four feet away.
Discord recently introduced a user verification method that helps to confirm the identity of users. Methods such as this could in the future be integrated in the metaverse, so it’s easier to determine whether a person is truly who they say they are.
Image credit to Saif71