Evil enters the Metaverse - researcher deep-dives only to experience a virtual rape

July 15, 2022

Jayde Robertson

We really do live in a world gone mad. Everything seems… nonsensical. Schools all over the US are considered unsafe, we’re on the verge of WWIII, and we’re still in the grips of a global pandemic - never mind the threat of looming monkeypox endemic. The cost of living has become unbearable at a global level - with no fair end in sight. It’s fair to say that at this stage - nothing could possibly surprise us - right?


In May 2022 -  we seemed to enter a new level of the game. One driven by virtual (mis) desire, and well. To put it lightly - evil.

What started out as an innocent - and purpose-driven research effort, quickly turned into a virtual horror story for a young researcher. A researcher visited the metaverse with the intention of studying user behavior on Horizon World, Meta's social networking platform. However, she claims she was raped in the virtual environment within an hour of donning her Oculus virtual reality (VR) gear. The Metaverse - a relatively new concept - has already been deemed “another cesspool of toxic content”, according to a recent study released on May 24 by the nonprofit advocacy group SumOfUs.

Users invited the researcher to a private party on Horizon World earlier this month, according to SumOfUs' account. Users in the same room then requested that she turn off a setting that stopped anyone from approaching her within 1.2 meters.

The article included a link to a video that, according to the group, depicts what happens to the researcher's avatar from her point of view. A male avatar is seen approaching her in the video, while another male avatar stands nearby, watching. In the 28-second video, a bottle of what looks to be liquor is exchanged between the two avatars. In the video, two male voices can be heard making filthy remarks.

According to the report, the 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," according to a portion of the video SumOfUs chose not to share but describe. Researchers from SumOfUs also said they heard homophobic and racial remarks in Horizon World and saw gun violence in the game.

The encounter left the researcher "disoriented," she wrote in the paper, despite the fact that it occurred in virtual reality. When the male avatars touched her, the researcher's controller vibrated, giving her a real experience that was a result of what she was experiencing online.

"One part of my brain was like wtf is happening, the other part was like this isn't a real body, and another part was like, this is important research," she said in the report.

She’s not the only one.

Horizon Worlds was released in December to users aged 18 and older in the United States and Canada. According to The Verge, the platform had at least 300,000 members by February.

According to the SumOfUs report, four other users recently alleged that their avatars were sexually attacked or assaulted in Horizon World and other Meta VR platforms.

In November, a beta tester complained that her Horizon Worlds avatar had been groped.

What does Meta have to say for themselves?

Meta spokeswoman Kristina Milian told the MIT Technology Review at the time that customers should have "a positive experience with easily accessible safety tools—and it's never the responsibility of the user if they don't use all of the capabilities we provide. We'll keep improving our user interface and learning more about how people use our tools so that users can report issues quickly and accurately. Our goal is to make Horizon Worlds a safe place to visit, and we are dedicated to achieving that goal."

However, metaverse researcher Nina Jane Patem revealed in a Medium article the following month that her avatar was gang-raped by three to four male-looking avatars within 60 seconds of accessing Horizon Worlds.

A female player's avatar was grabbed on a Meta-owned shooter game, according to The New York Times. Separately, a female player on the sports game Echo VR said that a male player told her that he had taped her voice in order to "jerk off" to her cursing.

At least two prominent metaverse investors have raised concerns over new allegations of harassment and abuse on the company's platforms.

Meta has bet its future on the development of its virtual reality metaverse. It invested $10 billion in the metaverse's creation. According to Insider, CEO Mark Zuckerberg is betting on the long game with his investment, predicting that the project would continue to lose money for the next three to five years.

However, real revelations of harassment and abuse on Meta's metaverse platforms have disturbed at least two significant Meta investors. Earlier this month, Nick Clegg, president for global affairs at Meta Platforms, said in a blog post that "the rules and safety features of the metaverse — regardless of the floor — will not be identical to the ones currently in place for social media. Nor should they be. But, he continued, "In the physical world, as well as the internet, people shout and swear and do all kinds of unpleasant things that aren't prohibited by law, and they harass and attack people in ways that are. The metaverse will be no different. People who want to misuse technologies will always find ways to do it."

Well now - if that’s the stance that the tech giant is taking - they’re effectively condoning it - if not supporting misuse of the platform.

What do we think?

A lot. We think a lot. What we find most concerning about this, is the underlying psychological issue that this user behavior speaks to. Is it indicative of real human behavior and the tendency - are these users just as vile in the real world - or does it indicate a deeper and more horrifying issue of men searching for new ways to exert dominance over women - even in the virtual world?

The most pressing issue here - is the response to the events. In no uncertain terms - users have been told to expect this behavior - and all they can really do is activate a safety control. What does that mean for users - really? The platform is clearly defensive - and in a sense - knew this would happen.

The deeper concern, and possibly one that holds the most value - is: Do we need to redefine rape to include harassment in a virtual world? If we are heading into a world with minimal real interaction, with most of our lives happening online - surely then, rape online should equate to rape in the real world?

Does the Metaverse need to be policed? Do these platforms need to be eradicated completely? What does this mean for the future of our children - if users are already abusing the platform? If virtual rape becomes acceptable - what precedent does it set for an already vulnerable generation?

As we’ve mentioned in our opinion piece , “Meta Tests New Avatar Reactions In Instagram Stories”, we have all noticed that social media and all its developments (think Metaverse, avatars etc.) can actually be a force for good. In the above-mentioned opinion piece - we highlighted that safety and consideration should be at the core of these developments - and quite honestly speaking, the most recent events in the Metaverse could possibly be proof that we’re just not there yet.

Sure - this doesn’t really impact marketers - but the issue deserves attention - and it needs to be addressed before this is accepted as the new norm.

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