Not just sticks and stones in virtual reality

Sexual crimes are on the rise in VR worlds, and lawmakers are behind on navigating the issue.

Online forms of sexual harrassment are commonplace  in internet gaming, messaging, and content-sharing platforms. However, as virtual reality technology becomes more accessible to the general public, these creeps are invading immersive worlds too, forcing game-creators, players, and lawmakers to evaluate the extent to which such worlds should be legally governed. 

While playing Meta Platform’s Horizon Worlds, a free, online virtual reality game, a 21 year-old researcher experienced her avatar being sexually assaulted, with two users making crude comments while passing around a virtual bottle of alcohol. The researcher also witnessed users frequently engaging in virtual gun violence and using homophobic slurs. Late last year, a beta user for the platform shared her experience of being groped in the virtual environment, with similar reports dating back as early as 2016.

After receiving a plethora of complaints, the platform now has a ‘Personal Boundary Setting’ feature which allows users to prevent strangers from entering a 4ft bubble around them. However, this is an optional feature not available in all VR worlds, and still raises the question of how users may be safeguarded from misogynistic behaviors in massive online spaces where live moderators are not a viable solution. Unlike the comments section of a YouTube video, the immersive nature of these spaces – coupled with the neurological phenomenon of avatar embodiment –makes these experiences both real and intense. 

VR interactions are often deemed to occur inside a ‘magic circle’, where they are only significant in that specific virtual world: the only place they can be considered ‘real’. However, especially in the case of sexual crime, these virtual interactions have ‘extra-virtual’ effects, extendening beyond the virtual realm and into the real world. Victims of indecent assault in VR reported that the incidents felt violating, isolating, and most importantly, real. There has been clear emotional and psychological harm caused as a consequence of assault, which should indicate that a criminal act has occurred.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that events in VR induce physiological and cognitive responses nearly identical to events that occur in the ‘real world’. For example, the heart rate of VR users spiked as they held their virtual hands over a crackling fire;  they reported feeling the heat. When asked to place their hands in the flames, they exhibited physiological signs of stress and fear. In a previous article entitled The body in the brain, I discussed the mechanisms of body-ownership illusions, which have already shown immense therapeutic benefits. This means that the ‘realness’ of sexual assault in VR, though not at all commensurate with real, physical assault, cannot be discounted.

AucklaBarrister Josh Hansen believes that to present the problem to lawmakers, further study is needed on the trauma inflicted upon victims of sexaul assault in VR. He notes that we should recognise the law falling far behind not only in regulating virtual worlds, but online spaces generally. Citing the failure to stamp out misinformation and graphic material on platforms like Facebook, he sees our current legislation as having a long way to go. He is one of only a few legal experts to write on the topic of indecent assault in VR, calling for lawmakers’ attention to be brought to the issue on the basis of moral wrongfulness and harm caused.

Sceptics of the true gravity of sexual assault in VR may retort that a user can simply remove their headset. In his article, Hansen notes that this solution infringes upon the freedom of users in the virtual environment. Furthermore, someone’s ability to flee a situation “does not change the culpability of the offender”, especially considering that fear often creates a hesitancy to escape danger.

Hansen sees the intervention of criminal law in virtual worlds as something that should be reserved for extreme acts. Ideally software developers should integrate safeguards to protect their users in almost all cases. However, if we continue on the trajectory of blurring reality and virtual worlds, criminalising sexual crime in VR may become necessary to deter such behaviour. 

I am of the opinion that criminalisation is an essential deterrent. Virtual spaces cannot be supported as spaces for the enactment of gross fantasy by those who wish to shirk moral responsibility. Ultimately, Hansen summarises it well: “acts in virtual worlds which cause real harm are real acts that need real world consequences.”