A beta tester has claimed she was virtually “groped” in the metaverse VR platform Horizon Worlds from Meta, the company formerly known as Facebook.
Meta revealed the incident on Dec. 1, saying it occurred on Nov. 26. The woman had reported the assault on the Horizon Worlds beta testing 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, according to the Verge. “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.
“Severe” encounters of online harassment — including physical threats, stalking and “repeated” harassment — are on the rise, according to a 2020 Pew Research poll, with the percentage of users reporting such incidents jumping from 15% in 2014 to 25% today. While much of it takes place on social media, VR is still nascent and already an apparent venue for harassment.
Horizon Worlds, operated by VR company Oculus — which is also owned by Meta — is billed as a pleasant, productive digital escape, a place to “create in extraordinary ways” and “find experiences that matter” with your avatar friends. The platform currently supports up to 20 people during one virtual session.
In its statement about the incident, Meta pointed to its “Safe Zone” feature, which allows users to place a block against interaction with other users. However, the company admitted that it needs to work on making the feature “trivially easy and findable,” said Vivek Sharma, the vice president of Horizon, in a statement to the Verge.
Meta spokesperson Kristina Milian also told MIT Technology Review that users are required to complete training that covers safeguarding tools before joining Horizon Worlds, while reminders are also prompted during users’ experiences.
Sexual harassment in virtual reality is sexual harassment in real life, full stop, experts have said.
“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 3-D environment,” Katherine Cross, a Ph.D. student researcher of online harassment at the University of Washington, told Technology Review.
“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,” she added.
Those who have suffered sexual harassment in VR elsewhere say that Meta’s Safe Zone feature isn’t enough.
“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,’” said Cross. Meanwhile, Meta’s Milian maintained that it’s “never a user’s fault if they don’t use all the features we offer,” adding that they will continue to “improve” the platform.
However, Horizon Worlds isn’t the only space where alleged harassment has occurred.
Aaron Stanton, co-developer of the VR game Quivr, remembers an ordeal in 2016 when a gamer, Jordan Belamire, reported getting “groped in virtual reality” while hunting zombies and demons in the game. User BigBro442, whose avatar was merely one disembodied head and two floating hands, reportedly chased Belamire and grabbed her chest and crotch, then refused to pull away as she cried stop. That only “goaded him on,” Belamire said.
Quivr soon developed a shielding “power gesture,” in which a user can cross their arms in the air, signaling to moderators to intervene. But Stanton is still haunted by what happened to Belamire and wishes he had pushed for more protections.
“It was a lost opportunity,” he told Technology Review. “We could have avoided that incident at Meta.”