4 min

[Questions about the metaverse. Episode 1] Sexual assault: time for action

After just a few months of existence, Facebook’s Horizon Worlds metaverse has already seen blatant sexual assault. Its virtual nature does nothing to lessen the violence that the victims experience. It is an area still devoid of legislation.

Digital transition - Fabrice Deblock - September 26, 2022

Launched in late 2021 in the United States and Canada and in August 2022 in France and Spain, the Horizon Worlds metaverse from Meta (formerly Facebook) already claims 300,000 active monthly users, according to figures provided in February 2022 by the Mark Zuckerberg-founded company.

Strictly speaking, Horizon Worlds is an immersive virtual space that meta defines as “a social virtual reality experience where users can create and explore together”. It requires a virtual reality headset from Oculus Quest, which belongs to Meta. Smartphone and computer access is planned in the future.

In Horizon Worlds, each user creates their own avatar and can go from one virtual world to another through portals called “telepods”. According to Meta, there are more than 10,000 “worlds” in the virtual reality environment. Members can talk with other people, play games and watch movies. It’s sort of like a combination of social network Facebook and a set of games and content for consumption.

A Horizon Worlds beta tester sexually assaulted

Up to this point, everything seems normal for this “version 1” of the more global metaverse that Meta wants to create. Except that a beta tester of the platform reported being a victim of sexual assault, even before Horizon Worlds had been officially launched.

She reported that an unknown person groped her avatar on the official Horizon Worlds Facebook group. “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she wrote. “Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behaviour which made me feel isolated,” she added.

Vivek Sharma, then Vice President of Horizon Worlds at Meta (he resigned in late August 2022), told magazine The Verge that the incident was “absolutely unfortunate”, but the beta tester did not use the safety feature that allows any user who feels threatened to avoid being touched or to block interactions with others until they decide to lift this security zone. In reality, this argument hides the serious shortfalls in ensuring users’ safety in these virtual spaces. And the phenomenon is far from new. In Second Life, founded in 2003, associations have pointed to numerous cases of abuse that occurred in that precursor virtual universe.

Another incident brought forward by an NGO in May 2022

Another incident occurred this past May. American NGO SumOfUs published a report entitled “Metaverse: another cesspool of toxic content” where it recounts the experience of one of its researchers in Horizon Worlds.

“About an hour into using the platform, a SumOfUs researcher was led into a private room at a party where she was raped by a user who kept telling her to turn around so he could do it from behind while users outside the window could see – all while another user in the room watched and passed around a vodka bottle. This sexual act was non-consensual, and the researcher described the experience as ‘disorienting’ and confusing,” they wrote in the report with a video as support.

“Even though we cannot consider it rape given the absence of a physical body, we can of course understand that the event was quite a violent experience for the researcher. And the feeling of rape or sexual assault is very much present. It is important that this person is able to report what she lived through and express what she felt,” says Michael Stora, psychologist, psychoanalyst and co-founder of OMNSH (Observatory of Digital Worlds in Social Sciences).

Immersive technologies that amplify the senses

This victim’s account is important in a context where all immersive technologies have the goal of offering users an ever-greater sensorial experience, for example through the accessories used (controllers, connected gloves, etc.) which, as extensions of the physical bodies, can react or vibrate when two members on the same “world” enter into contact.

“It’s what we call transmodality. These technologies are increasingly used to recreate the five senses. And, thanks to the virtual reality headset, the feeling of presence is accentuated. Thus, a virtual assault can quickly be heavily amplified,” Michael Stora says. He adds, “this account also raises the question of how we live in our avatar. Is it an extension of ourselves, our ideals, a part of ourselves that we do not always accept?”.

Whatever the case may be, the metaverse raises many other legal, ethical and moderation issues. “These are very important challenges for these virtual environments. But for now, metaverses are essentially considered from a business standpoint. The business model is what takes precedence over ethics, empathy and symbolism, which would allow us to avoid reproducing toxic environments such as Facebook or Instagram,” Michael Stora says.

After these incidents, Meta stepped up the technical protection systems within Horizon Worlds. The “Personal Boundary” feature creates a protective bubble around the avatar and avoids any unwanted interaction with strangers. Another option, called “SafeZone”, allows the user to teleport to a secure space free from any aggression. Despite these features, these virtual universes really raise the issue of the behaviour of the people who use them. It indeed seems that some users feel that their avatar allows them to live out all their excesses with complete impunity.

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