The safety of virtual reality spaces has once again been called into question as a 21-year-old researcher’s avatar was raped in the metaverse.
Last week, SumOfUs published a report titled ‘Metaverse: another cesspool of toxic content’ which contains details of the researcher’s violent encounter in Meta’s Horizon World.
The incident reportedly took place as the researcher was studying users’ behaviour on the platform. Within an hour after she put on her Oculus virtual-reality headset, she says, her avatar was raped in the virtual space.
According to the report, the researcher was invited to a private party on Horizon World where users in the same room asked her to disable her safety bubble setting.
The report linked to a video that the group says shows what happened to the researcher’s avatar from her perspective.
The video shows a male avatar getting very close to her, while another male avatar watchces. In the 28-second video, a bottle of what appears to be alcohol is passed between the two avatars as the male voices make lewd comments.
One user reportedly kept telling the researcher to ‘turn around so he could do it from behind,’ while users outside the window could see.
‘This sexual act was non-consensual, and the researcher described the experience as “disorienting” and confusing,’ said the report.
Many people can be quick to dismiss assault in vitual reality as something that did not actually happen.
‘It still counts, it still has a real impact on users,’ the group’s campaigns director Vicky Wyatt told the BBC.
The researcher noted that when another user touched you, the hand controllers vibrate, creating a very disorienting and even disturbing physical experience during a virtual assault.
‘It happened so fast I kind of disassociated. 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.
The report adds to concerns that virtual reality can be unsafe for women and marginalised groups.
The researchers also reported experiencing homophobic and racial slurs in Horizon Worlds and said they witnessed gun violence on the platform.
This is not the first time women have reported sexual assault on the platform. In 2021, Nina Jane Patel, a psychotherapist and researcher reported being sexually assaulted on Horizon Worlds.
SumOfUs says Meta needs better plans to mitigate harms in the metaverse.
At last week’s shareholder meeting, Meta investors reportedly wanted a report on harms facing metaverse users, but shareholders rejected the idea.
Horizon Worlds is currently only available to users in the US and Canada.
In late 2021, Meta announced its new plans to pivot to the metaverse, investing around $10 billion in Facebook Reality Labs and creating 10,000 metaverse-related jobs in Europe.
Just this month, Mark Zuckerberg gave us the first tantalising glimpse of Meta’s secretive VR headset. While development on its metaverse technologies is steamrolling on, it’s yet to be seen if the company is working on safety features on those platforms.