Recent reports of sexual assault within virtual reality (VR) environments, known as the metaverse, have shed light on the need for updated legislation and a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding online harassment.
Legal gaps in the metaverse
In the wake of virtual sexual assaults, concerns arise about the inadequacy of current legislation to address these issues effectively. Jacqueline Watts, a specialist technology solicitor, highlights the complexity of governing behavior within virtual worlds, particularly in cases of sexual assault. She points out that existing laws in the UK do not specifically address interactions occurring in VR environments, leaving a regulatory void.
Users typically agree to platform-specific terms and conditions when entering the metaverse, but these may not explicitly prohibit virtual assault on avatars. However, Watts believes that traditional laws will eventually be applied to such cases as lawmakers recognize the need for legal accountability.
The UK National Crime Agency has already acknowledged the potential classification of metaverse offenses as criminal acts, signaling a growing commitment to addressing this issue.
The toxic culture of online gaming
Dr. Brenda K. Wiederhold, a cyberpsychologist, emphasizes the role of a long-standing toxic culture within online gaming that contributes to inappropriate behavior in VR environments.
A study by the Young Gamers and Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM) reveals alarming statistics, with 28 percent of female gamers reporting sexual harassment and 40 percent experiencing verbal abuse during online multiplayer games. This culture has driven prominent female gamers to raise awareness about sexual harassment within the gaming community.
The problem extends beyond sexual harassment, with instances of virtual “teabagging” in games like Splitgate, where players engage in inappropriate behavior after defeating opponents. The prevalence of such behavior underscores the need for a change in the gaming culture.
While technology companies are pioneering immersive and interactive VR experiences, they currently lack a legal obligation to protect users from virtual harassment. Despite experts’ warnings, tech giants do not provide sufficient safeguards against these incidents.
Efforts to develop personal boundary settings within VR environments offer some protection but may be easily bypassed by perpetrators. However, placing the responsibility on victims to prevent virtual assault mirrors the real-world issue of victim blaming and fails to address the root problem of rape culture.
Understanding virtual assault
Some individuals may struggle to comprehend the concept of virtual assault, erroneously believing that it cannot equate to “real” rape. However, experts like Dr. Brenda K. Wiederhold argue that virtual harassment in VR environments can have profound emotional and psychological impacts on victims, extending beyond the virtual realm.
When one becomes their avatar during VR experiences, any assault or harassment becomes a traumatic experience that persists after removing the headset.
Moreover, the sensory aspect of VR amplifies the experience of game-based sexual harassment. Victims can feel the physical sensations of virtual touch through handheld controllers, intensifying the trauma associated with these incidents.
It is crucial to recognize that sexual harassment within the metaverse is not solely a gaming issue; it reflects a broader societal problem known as rape culture. Rape culture perpetuates the normalization of sexual harassment, victim-blaming, and lack of empathy for survivors. This culture manifests in various forms, from rape jokes to dismissive comments about virtual assault cases.
Addressing rape culture in both real and virtual worlds requires a collective effort. Society must acknowledge the gravity of these issues and work towards eliminating toxic behaviors that harm individuals, whether online or offline.