Horizon Worlds, a virtual-reality social media platform created by Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook, was made available to the public last week. It’s easy to see why the platform is being compared to the popular video game Minecraft, based on early descriptions. You can play with as many as twenty people at a time in the virtual world of Horizon Worlds.
It hasn’t all been roses, of course. On November 26, a beta tester reported being groped by a stranger while playing Horizon Worlds, according to Meta. Meta made a Facebook post about her experience in the Horizon Worlds beta testing group on the first of December, according to her.
It was found that the beta tester should have used a tool called “Safe Zone” that is part of a suite of safety features built into Horizon Worlds. When in danger, a user can activate the Safe Zone to surround themselves in a protective bubble. Until they request to have the Safe Zone lifted, no one is allowed to come near them, speak to them, or interact with them in any way.
Even though it was “absolutely unfortunate,” Vivek Sharma, the vice president of Horizon, tells The Verge that “that’s good feedback still for us because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy to find.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time virtual reality users have had their private parts groped. Nevertheless, this incident demonstrates that the metaverse will never be safe unless companies figure out a way to protect its participants….
“There I was, being virtually groped,” I moaned “
After hearing about the incident at Meta, Aaron Stanton was transported back to October of the previous year. One of Stanton’s co-designers on the game Quivr, Jordan Belamire, wrote an open letter on Medium describing being groped while playing the game.
According to Belamire’s letter, the characters were all identical except for their voices. After a wave of demons and zombies, I sat next to BigBro442 as we waited for the next wave of attacks.” BigBro442’s phantom helmet turned to face me, staring me in the face. As his hand approached, he began to rub my chest virtually. Amid the chaos, I yelled “Stop!” This only enraged him further, and he pursued me while making grabbing and pinching motions toward my chest. He became so confident that he rubbed my virtual crotch with his hand.
My husband and brother-in-law were both present as I was “virtually groped in a snowy fortress.”
Stanton and Jonathan Schenker, his co-founder, apologised and made an in-game fix right away. Using a V gesture, avatars would be able to fend off any intruders by stretching out their arms.
That feature was not tracked by Quivr, and “I don’t think it was used much,” says Stanton, who now heads the VR Institute for Health and Exercise. The recent incident in Horizon Worlds has made Stanton reflect on his 2016 interactions with Belamire and consider whether or not he could have done more to avert it. As he points out, “There’s a lot more to be done here.” To avoid feeling powerless, “no one should have to flee a VR experience.”
To say that there has been VR sexual harassment is an understatement
Many of the online responses to Belamire’s incident were dismissive of her experience and at times abusive and misogynistic, according to a recent review of the events surrounding her encounter published in the journal of the Digital Games Research Association. “Given the virtual and playful context in which it occurred, readers from all perspectives struggled to understand this act.” The last thing I saw of Belamire was a faded image on the internet.
After Belamire’s Medium article, there was much discussion on message boards about whether or not what she had experienced was groping if her body was not physically touched.
According to Jesse Fox, an associate professor at Ohio State University who studies virtual reality’s social implications, “I think people should keep in mind that sexual harassment has never had to be a physical thing.” The experience can be verbal and virtual at the same time,” says the author.
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According to University of Washington’s Katherine Cross, who studies online harassment, toxic behaviour occurs when virtual reality is immersive and real. Even though virtual-reality spaces are designed to fool the user into believing that their every bodily action takes place in a 3D environment, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she explains. Emotional reactions can be stronger in that space, and VR triggers the same internal nervous system and psychological responses because of that. ”
On Horizon Worlds, that is exactly what happened to a woman. On the regular internet, sexual harassment isn’t a laughing matter, but when it’s done in virtual reality, it takes things to a whole new level.” Besides being groped last night, other people in the Plaza were encouraging this behaviour, leaving me feeling alone in the virtual environment.
It’s unrealistic to expect that issues of sexual assault and harassment in virtual worlds will go away any time soon. These incidents will continue as long as there are people who will hide behind their computers to avoid moral responsibility.
It’s possible that Stanton’s description of a “contract between developer and player” is at the root of what’s wrong with virtual worlds. When I play the game, I agree to follow the rules set by the developers, and I’m fine with that,” he says. When a contract is broken and a player no longer feels safe, the company has an obligation to get that player back to where they want to be and where they feel safe.
The real question is: Whose job is it to make sure that users are happy?
Meta, for example, claims that it places the burden of security protection squarely on the shoulders of its users.