Unfortunately, sexual harassment online is pervasive, happening in such disparate venues as social media, chat rooms, Discord servers, and role-playing games. Virtual worlds and social VR are no exception. Again, this is not a new problem; I have been writing about trolling, griefing and harassment in the metaverse, and how companies are responding to it, since May of 2018 on this blog.
There have been several recent news reports about women who reported being groped or otherwise harassed in Meta’s social VR platforms Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues. For example, the U.K.’s Daily Mail had this report about a women who was assaulted after logging into Horizon Venues:
Nina Jane Patel watched and listened in horror through a virtual-reality headset as her avatar – a moving, talking, computer-generated version of herself – was groped aggressively in a sustained attack by three realistic male characters.
On a visit this month, the mother-of-four entered the ‘lobby’ – a virtual space serving as an entry point. But within seconds she was pursued by the men’s avatars, who groped her, subjected her to a stream of sexual innuendo and took screen shots of the attack for several minutes as she tried to flee.
Earlier this month, a beta tester posted in the official Horizon group on Facebook about how her avatar was groped by a stranger. “Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense,” she wrote. “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.”
[Vivek] Sharma [Meta’s VP of Horizon] calls the incident “absolutely unfortunate” and says that after Meta reviewed the incident, the company determined that the beta tester didn’t utilize the safety features built into Horizon Worlds, including the ability to block someone from interacting with you. (When you’re in Horizon, a rolling buffer of what you see is saved locally on your Oculus headset and then sent to Meta for human review if an incident is reported.) “That’s good feedback still for us because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and findable,” he says.
This event was widely reported by a variety of news sources, ranging from the New York Post to the MIT Technology Review. Victor Tangermann wrote in a Dec. 16th, 2021 Futurism article titled Sexual Assault Is Already Happening in the Metaverse:
Rather than ensuring Horizon Worlds doesn’t foster a culture of strangers groping each other in VR, Meta is hoping to make the problem go away by making adjustments to its tools. The company says users can turn on a feature called “Safe Zone,” which creates an impenetrable bubble around the user when they want more space.
But personal space is likely to be a galling problem for social VR applications.
“I think people should keep in mind that sexual harassment has never had to be a physical thing,” Jesse Fox, an associate professor at Ohio State University, told MIT Technology Review. “It can be verbal, and yes, it can be a virtual experience as well.”
Bloomberg columnist Parmy Olson also wasn’t exactly impressed by Meta’s VR experience, either. Once in the VR lobby of Horizon Venues — Meta’s VR events platform that is serving as Horizon Worlds’ precursor — she was being surrounded by a “group of male avatars” who started taking pictures of her.
“One by one, they began handing the photos to me,” Olson writes. “The experience was awkward and I felt a bit like a specimen.”
Meta may have thought they would have avoided these kind of problems by deliberately designing their avatars to have no body below the waist. No genitals, no problem, right? WRONG. It’s not what the avatars look like that’s the issue here; it’s how the people using the avatars behave towards each other.
Note also Parmy Olson’s incident in the previous quote: in her case, the group of male avatars were using Horizon Worlds’ built-in camera feature to make her feel uncomfortable. Harassment can take many forms, and may involve the abuse of features which the developers never dreamed would be so misused.
On February 4th, 2022, no doubt in response to these and other news reports and the negative publicity they generated, Meta announced a Personal Boundary feature:
Today, we’re announcing Personal Boundary for Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues. Personal Boundary prevents avatars from coming within a set distance of each other, creating more personal space for people and making it easier to avoid unwanted interactions. Personal Boundary will begin rolling out today everywhere inside of Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues, and will by default make it feel like there is an almost 4-foot distance between your avatar and others.
This Personal Boundary feature is hard-coded, at least for now; you cannot turn it off or adjust the distance. According to the press release:
We are intentionally rolling out Personal Boundary as always on, by default, because we think this will help to set behavioral norms—and that’s important for a relatively new medium like VR. In the future, we’ll explore the possibility of adding in new controls and UI changes, like letting people customize the size of their Personal Boundary.
Note that because Personal Boundary is the default experience, you’ll need to extend your arms to be able to high-five or fist bump other people’s avatars in Horizon Worlds or in Horizon Venues.
Adi Robinson of The Verge clarifies that “it gives everyone a two-foot radius of virtual personal space, creating the equivalent of four virtual feet between avatars”, adding:
Meta spokesperson Kristina Milian confirmed that users can’t choose to disable their personal boundaries since the system is intended to establish standard norms for how people interact in VR. However, future changes could let people customize the size of the radius.
If someone tries to walk or teleport within your personal space, their forward motion will stop. However, Milian says that you can still move past another avatar, so users can’t do things like use their bubbles to block entrances or trap people in virtual space
Contrast Meta’s approach with other platforms such as Sansar, which gives the user control over whether or not they want to set up personal space between themselves and other avatars, allowing them to set up one distance for people on their friends list (or to turn it off completely, and set another for non-friends and strangers (see the Comfort Zone settings in the image below):
And, of course, VRChat has an elaborate, six-level Trust and Safety system, where you can make adjustments to mute/hide avatars, among other settings.
A few thoughts about all this. Because Meta is such a large, well-known company, it was perhaps inevitable that such reports would be considered newsworthy—even though sexual harassment has been around for decades in virtual worlds, dating back to Active Worlds, founded over a quarter-century ago!
Also, the immersive nature of virtual reality can make such harassment feel more invasive. Jessica Outlaw has researched and written at length about women’s experience of harassment in virtual reality (here and here).
Finally, like all the metaverse platforms which came before it, Meta is learning and making adjustments to its social VR platforms over time. This is common and is to be expected. For example, Second Life has had a long history of discovering and addressing problems which arose during its 18+ years of existence. Some fixes are good; others cause their own problems, and require further tinkering.
I personally believe that the best solution to the continuing problem of sexual harassment in the metaverse requires a deft mix of social and community rules and expectations with software solutions such as the Personal Boundary feature, and muting/blocking avatars. There is no easy fix; we learn as we go.