Harassment Will Continue in the Metaverse, Experts Say

Virtual worlds can still mean real problems

Key Takeaways

  • Even though the metaverse is just getting started, users are already experiencing harassment in the virtual world. 
  • Companies like Meta are taking steps to prevent metaverse users from unwanted interactions. 
  • But some experts say that policing the metaverse may present unique challenges.
Someone using virtual reality glasses.

F.J. Jimenez / Getty Images

The metaverse may be virtual, but it's bringing up some of the same problems as the real world. 

A spate of online harassment incidents is a sign that policing the network of 3D worlds known as the metaverse could be a challenge. Companies are trying to find ways to make the metaverse safer. 

"The metaverse is simply a digital extension of the real world," Elmer Morales, the CEO of metaverse startup Campus, told Lifewire in an email interview. "Given many people use pseudonyms in virtual worlds, they can be more likely to harass others since there may not be a clear set of repercussions."

Virtual Harassment

The metaverse is still in its infancy, but it's not been immune to problems of harassment. According to Meta, a stranger recently groped a beta tester on the new metaverse platform Horizon Worlds. 

The beta tester could have used a tool called "Safe Zone" that's part of a suite of safety features built into Horizon Worlds. A Safe Zone is a protective area you can activate when feeling threatened. No one can interact with you when you are in the zone. 

The Horizon World experience is an example of how companies need to step up their efforts to protect users in the metaverse, experts say. 

"We've had virtual worlds for a very long time, and this has been an ongoing problem for many years," Morales said. "It's day 0 for the metaverse, and now is a good time for metaverse companies to build tools that help prevent harassment."

Campus allows users to configure a "safe zone" during the onboarding process. This 'safe zone' will create a bubble around the avatars that no one can interfere with or come close to. 

Bucking the Trend

Policing the metaverse may present unique challenges. If a social media user is banned for bad behavior, they can just discontinue using the service. But that might not be an option in the metaverse, Allan Buxton, the director of forensics at Secure Data Recovery Services, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"If your employment, banking, or medical history is tied to services only available through the metaverse, then quitting the site isn't really an option, much less other options like creating a new identity and 'starting over,'" he added. "As we've seen some harassers follow their targets between social media sites (from Twitter to Instagram etc.), the metaverse could very well allow harassment to bleed over into real-world services."

In an email interview, Jonathan Ovadia, the CEO of AEXLAB, a virtual reality and gaming studio, said that his company focuses on establishing community guidelines to keep behavior in line. 

A group of people suing virtual reality in a gallary.

Lucrezia Carnelos / Unsplash

"This approach has helped self-correct our community through social enforcement," he added. "If players act out of line, they will be reported, and action will be taken. Luckily for us, it has not been a major issue, but we are aware as we continue to scale, we need to focus deeply on maintaining our games culture and friendly community."

Amir Bozorgzadeh, the CEO of virtual reality company Virtuleap, agreed that moderation is vital. He predicted that a niche industry is going to spring up in which companies will come up with ways to address the various dangers inherent in metaverse environments. 

"The unfortunate thing is that these innovations will only come about incrementally, through trial and error, and at first very imperfectly as society encounters each wave of incidents one after another," he said. 

But some observers say that the metaverse could lead to less harassment in the workplace. Virtual work environments allow companies to monitor and record employee interactions carefully, Graham Ralston, head of operations at Spot, a 3D virtual workplace, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

"A metaverse platform can provide protection for the harassed if they would feel more comfortable approaching HR virtually as an avatar compared to a 'black screen on zoom,' video feed, or just an email," he said.

Correction 01/10/2022: Corrected the company for Allan Buxton in paragraph 9 to reflect the full company name: Secure Data Recovery Services.

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