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Sexual assaults are happening in VR. What can we do about it?

Twenty-year-old Hollie*, a student, is an avid gamer, and has been excited by the developments in virtual reality gaming for some time — a type of gaming where you play as an avatar first-person via a headset, and a 3D environment is applied (a “virtual world”) to make for a more immersive experience. 

But when she finally got to play one, Zenith: The Last City, a game she played through Meta Quest, the experience was “terrifying.” 

Hollie was led by another player into a private area of the virtual world. “I thought he was going to show me something,” she tells Mashable, “but instead he started groping me, touching me all over me.” 

“I waited for it to stop, logged out, and never played the game again,” she says. “I was so panicked and couldn’t stop crying, but I never told anyone. I didn’t feel like anyone would understand.”

Hollie is not alone in her experience. Earlier this month, reports emerged that a teenage girl had been allegedly gang-raped in the metaverse. British police are currently investigating the sexual assault of the girl, identified only as being under the age of 16, in what is thought to be the first investigation of its kind in the UK: a rape taking place inside a virtual world. 

Incidents like these speak to a dark side of immersive gaming we aren’t yet prepared for in society. Speaking to experts in virtual reality gaming and cybercrime, Mashable uncovers why people’s experiences of violence need to be taken seriously whether they’re in the “real” world or virtual worlds, the struggles law enforcement face when investigating these kinds of crimes, and what can be done to stop this type of violence in the future. 

The law needs to catch up with technology 

There are fears that, for a number of reasons, police will struggle to prosecute the defendants involved in virtual assault. This is, in part, because legislation doesn’t align with our current technology. 

Jacqueline Watts, a specialist technology solicitor who leads the commercial team at A City Law Firm, says laws have not yet caught up to virtual worlds. Watts, who has extensive experience advising clients on Web3 and metaverse law, says that governing this is complex, especially when it comes to sexual assault. 

Watts tells Mashable there are currently no laws in the UK that directly address interactions in virtual worlds experienced through playing VR games, so ways to govern behaviour taking place there are still developing. “In most cases, users have to agree to specific contractual licensing terms for specific ‘metaverse’ platforms to participate in it,” she explains, but these terms may not include assault of other avatars as unacceptable behaviour. 

Watts, however, expects that traditional laws — and the enforcement actions that come with them — will be applied to those terms in the foreseeable future. 

She notes that lawmakers are already starting to take this seriously. In fact, the UK National Crime Agency has already confirmed that offences committed in the metaverse could be treated as criminal offences. 

A deep-seated part of gaming culture 

Dr. Brenda K. Wiederhold, a cyberpsychologist and co-founder of the Virtual Reality Medical Center in La Jolla, California, notes in her study “Sexual Harassment in the Metaverse” that people may act inappropriately during VR gaming, in part, because of the “long-standing toxic culture that has grown around online gaming in general.” 

Thirty-five percent of women said they have been sent inappropriate content or messages from other gamers, according to a study carried out by Young Gamers and Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM) shared exclusively with The Independent. As well as this, 28 percent of female gamers have been sexually harassed by fellow gamers and 40 percent verbally abused by gamers while playing online multiplayer games. YGAM also noted that abuse experienced by women while gaming can often move to social media and even translate into offline stalking and harassment.

Sexual harassment being part and parcel of gaming culture is something a lot of women in gaming, particularly those with large platforms on YouTube and Twitch, have tried to raise awareness of. In 2022, for instance, gaming YouTuber Kayla, known on the platform as kayayluh, shared a harrowing video showing her experiences as a woman in gaming, particularly while playing the game Valorant, a Riot Games first-person shooter game. She included gameplay footage of male gamers asking her to kiss them and sharing details about their genitals as Kayla tries to play.

Mashable After Dark

Unfortunately, sexual harassment has long been intertwined with gaming culture, whether it’s men assaulting other men under the guise of banter and confirming “real wins,” or harassing women who enter the world simply just for being there. 

One gamer, 22-year-old Ryan*, a student, tells Mashable that Splitgate, a VR game he plays with friends, has a trend he describes as “Teabag Confirmed.” “It’s a thing where you only score the points for your kill if you teabag the opponent after killing them,” he says. “It’s supposed to be a bit of fun but it is a bit gross when it’s VR because it’s very there, in your face.” 

The prevalence of this kind of banter-veiled harassment is evidenced on Reddit too. In a thread about people’s experiences of game-based assault reviewed by Mashable, Reddit users commented, “Is this not normal? Everyone knows you haven’t won until you’ve teabagged your opponent,” and, “Shagging your enemy after you’ve killed them provides extra motivation to win.”

With sexual harassment in gaming so widespread that many gamers barely view it as an issue at all, you would imagine the tech giants developing gameplay to become more personal, interactive and immersive would use the technology to improve this culture — not emphasise it. But Wiederhold notes that tech companies don’t currently have a legal obligation to protect their users, despite experts’ warnings. 

Yes, virtual rape is still rape 

Though lawmakers, prosecutors, experts, and researchers are thankfully treating this UK case and others like it seriously, some social media users have insisted that VR assaults do not truly count as rape, even commenting on the New York Post‘s coverage of the alleged gang-rape with “Can we focus on real crime please?” and “Couldn’t she have just taken her headset off?”

It’s easy to see how, at a glance, people may feel confused at the idea of someone being raped inside a game. Rape myths perpetuating the idea that rape has to look a very specific way to be “real rape” are normalised in society. A fake world accessed through a headset doesn’t look like the typical environment for rape. 

Wiederhold says there are elements of gameplay unique to VR that make game-based sexual harassment much more visceral. “When you become the avatar, that is who you are for that moment,” she says. So if someone is sexually assaulted in virtual reality, the trauma will be carried into the real world.

“If [you’re sexually assaulted] in the metaverse, it doesn’t end when you take off the headset,” she adds.  

This is true of the child who was allegedly gang-raped in the metaverse. A police officer close to the case told the Daily Mail, “there is an emotional and psychological impact on the victim that is longer-term than any physical injuries.”

There is also a sensory aspect involved in VR that adds to the experience of game-based sexual harassment. In 2022, a researcher from nonprofit organisation Eko, then called SumOfUs, reported being sexually assaulted while playing Meta’s VR game Horizon Worlds

In the study, the researcher said she was convinced to go into a room by several male avatars. Once there, she was touched in the virtual world without her consent while they made sexually inappropriate comments. When her avatar was touched in game, she felt her handheld controllers vibrate with the other avatars’ movements.

Regardless, the confusion between real and virtual worlds shouldn’t squash our empathy for victims. As Wiederhold points out, “Sexual harassment has never been limited to in-person interactions. People have been harassed in any number of ways, from catcalls to lewd letters to obscene phone calls. It makes sense that toxic behaviour that occurs in a virtual space would have the same consequences as the real-world.” 

The Eko researcher had also been prompted by the other players’ to turn off her personal boundary setting, a feature developed by Meta that stops other avatars from making physical contact with you. Watts notes this as a potential solution to virtual assaults, but it doesn’t work all that well if perpetrators can coerce gamers into switching them off. 

Settings like the personal boundary feature are important and will likely stop many assaults from occurring, but it’s like a VR version of being told to cover up in order to avoid rape in the real world: the responsibility of preventing assault is on victims instead of targeting the real problem of rape culture. 

Although it might seem like it, gaming culture isn’t really to blame. Wiederhold notes in her study of sexual harassment in the metaverse that victims are often encouraged to downplay their experiences and get over them, while, as gamer Paul noted, perpetrators are actively encouraged to keep going and its branded part of “boy behaviour.” 

Sound familiar? Sexual assaults in the metaverse are not a symptom of gaming. It’s rape culture, referring to the normalisation of rape in society. Though most of us believe that rape is a bad thing, many will find themselves brushing it off as a part of society we can’t change, or likening specific types of rape as “real” and the rest as “expected” or “unavoidable.”

The prevalence of rape culture is evidenced in the popularity of rape jokes, a lack of empathy for particular rape victims (as evidenced by internet comments above), the lack of support available for them, and abysmal conviction rates for rape cases in the UK and the U.S

Rape culture has long gone unaddressed. Wiederhold notes that assault in the game is as real as assault in real life, and that advancements in technology have given us new avenues to hurt people. I would add that it’s also given us new ways of ignoring it as well. We didn’t fix our real world before developing fake ones to play in, and as these virtual worlds mirror our real lives (offering environments that reflect our own planet and social activities that look a lot like our real ones), it’s mirrored our rape culture problem too. As long as rape continues to be “normal” in real life, it’s normal in the game too. 

* The names of contributors have been changed to protect their identities.

If you have experienced sexual abuse, call the free, confidential National Sexual Assault hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673), or access the 24-7 help online by visiting online.rainn.org.

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