Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse can’t shake the problems of the real world, with a beta tester claiming she was sexually harassed in Horizon Worlds, his company’s virtual reality social platform.
Meta’s Horizon Worlds opened to users in the US and Canada earlier this week, giving users the opportunity to chat, explore, play games and build Minecraft-style creations in an animated virtual world.
However, before it launched, one of Horizon Worlds’ beta testers reported a less than savory experience in the fledgling app. In an official Facebook group for Horizon Worlds testers, a female described having her avatar “groped” by a stranger, the Verge reported.
“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.”
The digital diddling was described as “absolutely unfortunate” by Vivek Sharma, Meta’s VP of Horizon. Sharma told the Verge that the tester should have used Horizon’s safety tools to block the abusive stranger, and an internal review agreed, suggesting that she could have activated “Safe Zone” and encased her avatar in a protective bubble to ward off the handsy Horizon user.
“That’s good feedback still for us because I want to make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and findable,” Sharma told the Verge.
Despite the groping taking place at the hands of a cartoon avatar in a virtual world, there are some who think digital harassment is just as severe as the real thing. “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 the MIT Technology Review. “It can be verbal, and yes, it can be a virtual experience as well.”
Fox and a number of other researchers told the Technology Review that they consider the idea of the “Safe Zone” unfair, as it forces users to take action to protect themselves. Rather, Fox suggested that users be automatically kept apart until they consensually agree to approach each other – a suggestion that would make spontaneous socializing difficult to say the least.