Katherine Cross, who researches online harassment at the University of Washington, says that when virtual reality is immersive and real, toxic behavior that occurs in that environment is real as well. “At the end of the day, the nature of virtual-reality spaces is such that it is designed to trick the user into thinking they are physically in a certain space, that their every bodily action is occurring in a 3D environment,” she says. “It’s part of the reason why emotional reactions can be stronger in that space, and why VR triggers the same internal nervous system and psychological responses.”
That was true in the case of the woman who was groped on Horizon Worlds. According to The Verge, her post read: “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 which made me feel isolated in the Plaza [the virtual environment’s central gathering space].”
Sexual assault and harassment in virtual worlds is not new, nor is it realistic to expect a world in which these issues will completely disappear. So long as there are people who will hide behind their computer screens to evade moral responsibility, they will continue to occur.
The real problem, perhaps, has to do with the perception that when you play a game or participate in a virtual world, there’s what Stanton describes as a “contract between developer and player.” “As a player, I’m agreeing to being able to do what I want in the developer’s world according to their rules,” he says. “But as soon as that contract is broken and I’m not feeling comfortable anymore, the obligation of the company is to return the player to wherever they want to be and back to being comfortable.”
The question is: Whose responsibility is it to make sure users are comfortable? Meta, for example, says it gives users access to tools to keep themselves safe, effectively shifting the onus onto them.
“We want everyone in Horizon Worlds to have a positive experience with safety tools that are easy to find—and it’s never a user’s fault if they don’t use all the features we offer,” Meta spokesperson Kristina Milian said. “We will continue to improve our UI and to better understand how people use our tools so that users are able to report things easily and reliably. Our goal is to make Horizon Worlds safe, and we are committed to doing that work.”
Milian said that users must undergo an onboarding process prior to joining Horizon Worlds that teaches them how to launch Safe Zone. She also said regular reminders are loaded into screens and posters within Horizon Worlds.
But the fact that the Meta groping victim either did not think to use Safe Zone or could not access it is precisely the problem, says Cross. “The structural question is the big issue for me,” she says. “Generally speaking, when companies address online abuse, their solution is to outsource it to the user and say, ‘Here, we give you the power to take care of yourselves.’”
And that is unfair and doesn’t work. Safety should be easy and accessible, and there are lots of ideas for making this possible. To Stanton, all it would take is some sort of universal signal in virtual reality—perhaps Quivr’s V gesture—that could relay to moderators that something was amiss. Fox wonders if an automatic personal distance unless two people mutually agreed to be closer would help. And Cross believes it would be useful for training sessions to explicitly lay out norms mirroring those that prevail in ordinary life: “In the real world, you wouldn’t randomly grope someone, and you should carry that over to the virtual world.”
Until we figure out whose job it is to protect users, one major step toward a safer virtual world is disciplining aggressors, who often go scot-free and remain eligible to participate online even after their behavior becomes known. “We need deterrents,” Fox says. That means making sure bad actors are found and suspended or banned. (Milian said Meta “[doesn’t] share specifics about individual cases” when asked about what happened to the alleged groper.)
Stanton regrets not pushing more for industry-wide adoption of the power gesture and failing to talk more about Belamire’s groping incident. “It was a lost opportunity,” he says. “We could have avoided that incident at Meta.”
If anything is clear, it’s this: There is no body that’s plainly responsible for the rights and safety of those who participate anywhere online, let alone in virtual worlds. Until something changes, the metaverse will remain a dangerous, problematic space.