The Metaverse’s dark side: here come harassment and assaults

But as she waited, another player’s avatar approached hers.
The stranger then simulated groping and ejaculating onto her avatar, Siggens
said. Shocked, she asked the player, whose avatar appeared male, to stop.

“He shrugged as if to say: ‘I don’t know what to tell you.
It’s the metaverse — I’ll do what I want,’” said Siggens, a 29-year-old Toronto
resident. “Then he walked away.”

The world’s largest tech companies — Microsoft, Google,
Apple and others — are hurtling headlong into creating the metaverse, a virtual
reality world where people can have their avatars do everything from play video
games and attend gym classes to participate in meetings. In October, Mark
Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and chief executive, said he believed so much in
the metaverse that he would invest billions in the effort. He also renamed his
company Meta.

Yet even as tech giants bet big on the concept, questions
about the metaverse’s safety have surfaced. Harassment, assaults, bullying and
hate speech already run rampant in virtual reality games, which are part of the
metaverse, and there are few mechanisms to easily report the misbehaviour,
researchers said. In one popular virtual reality game, VRChat, a violating
incident occurs about once every seven minutes, according to the nonprofit
Centre for Countering Digital Hate.

Bad behaviour in the metaverse can be more severe than
today’s online harassment and bullying. That’s because virtual reality plunges
people into an all-encompassing digital environment where unwanted touches in
the digital world can be made to feel real and the sensory experience is

“When something bad happens, when someone comes up and
gropes you, your mind is tricking you into thinking it’s happening in the real
world,” Siggens said. “With the full metaverse, it’s going to be so much more

Toxic behaviour in gaming and in virtual reality is not new.
But as Meta and other huge companies make the metaverse their platform, the
issues are likely to be magnified by the companies’ reach over billions of
people. The companies are encouraging people to join the metaverse, with Meta,
which makes the Oculus Quest headsets, cutting prices for the products during
the holidays.

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Zuckerberg, who appears aware of questions about the
metaverse’s harms, has promised to build it with privacy and safety in mind.
Yet even his own lieutenants have wondered whether they can really stem toxic
behaviour there.

In March, Andrew Bosworth, a Meta executive who will become
chief technology officer in 2022, wrote in an employee memo that moderating
what people say and how they act in the metaverse “at any meaningful scale is
practically impossible.” The memo was reported earlier by The Financial Times.

Kristina Milian, a Meta spokesperson, said the company was
working with policymakers, experts and industry partners on the metaverse. In a
November blog post, Meta also said it was investing $50 million in global research
to develop its products responsibly.

Meta has asked its employees to volunteer to test the
metaverse, according to an internal memo viewed by The New York Times. A
stranger recently groped the avatar of one tester of a Meta virtual reality
game, Horizon Worlds, a company spokesperson said. The incident, which Meta has
said it learned from, was reported earlier by The Verge.

Misbehaviour in virtual reality is typically difficult to
track because incidents occur in real time and are generally not recorded.

Titania Jordan, the chief parent officer at Bark, which uses
artificial intelligence to monitor children’s devices for safety reasons, said
she was especially concerned about what children might encounter in the
metaverse. She said abusers could target children through chat messages in a
game or by speaking to them through headsets, actions that are difficult to

“VR is a whole other world of complexity,” Jordan said.
“Just the ability to pinpoint somebody who is a bad actor and block them indefinitely
or have ramifications so they can’t just get back on, those are still being

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Callum Hood, head of research at the Centre for Countering
Digital Hate, recently spent several weeks recording interactions in the VRChat
game, which is made by a developer called VRChat and largely played through
Oculus Quest headsets. In the game, people can form virtual communities and
have their avatars play cards, party in a virtual club or meet in virtual
public spaces to talk. Oculus rates it as safe for teenagers.

Yet over one 11-hour period, Hood said, he recorded more
than 100 problematic incidents on VRChat, some involving users who said they
were under 13. In several cases, users’ avatars made sexual and violent threats
against minors, he said. In another case, someone tried showing sexually
explicit content to a minor.

Hood said the incidents had violated Oculus’ terms of
service, as well as those of VRChat. He said he had reported his findings to
both companies but had not heard back.

“VRChat is unsafe because its developers and Facebook have
failed to put basic measures in place to ensure abusive users cannot access its
services,” he said. “They have created a safe haven for abusive users at the
same time as inviting minors to enter the metaverse.”

Milian said Meta’s community standards and VR policy outline
what is allowed on its platform, which developers must adhere to. “We don’t
allow content that attacks people based on race, ethnicity, national origin,
religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity,
and serious disease or disability,” she said.

Minors are not permitted to create accounts or use Oculus
devices, she said. Part of the responsibility, she added, lies with the
developers of the apps.

VRChat did not respond to a request for comment.

After Siggens faced abuse while playing the Population One
virtual reality game, she said, she joined a virtual support group for women,
many of whom also play the game. Members regularly dealt with harassment in the
game, she said. In June, Meta acquired BigBox VR, the developer of Population

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Another member of the support group, Mari DeGrazia, 48, of
Tucson, Arizona, said she saw harassment and assault happen in Population One
“two to three times a week, if not more.”

“Sometimes, we see things happen two to three times day that
violate the game’s rules,” she added.

BigBox VR did not respond to a request for comment.

DeGrazia said the people behind Population One had responded
to her complaints and appeared interested in making the game safer. Despite the
harassment, she said, she has found a community of virtual friends whom she
regularly plays the game with and enjoys those interactions.

“I’m not going to stop playing, because I think it’s
important to have diverse people, including women, playing this game,” she
said. “We aren’t going to be pushed out of it, even though sometimes it’s

In July, DeGrazia wore a haptic vest — which relays
sensations through buzzes and vibrations — to play Population One. When another
player groped her avatar’s chest, “it felt just awful,” she said. She noted
that Zuckerberg has described a metaverse where people can be fitted with
full-body suits that let them feel even more sensations, which she said was

Siggens said she had ultimately reported the user account of
the person who groped her in Population One through a form within the game. She
later received an automated response saying punitive action had been taken
against the user.

“I don’t know if they were banned for a day or for a week or
for forever,” she said. “Either way, it just keeps happening.”

An hour after the incident with the stranger’s avatar,
Siggens said, her avatar was groped again by a different user.

© 2022 The New York Times Company

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