from the the-value-of-user-tools-in-moderation dept
Horizon Worlds is a VR (virtual reality) social space and world building game created by Facebook. In early December, a beta tester wrote about being virtually groped by another Horizon Worlds user. A few weeks later, The Verge and other outlets published stories about the incident. However, their coverage omits key details from the victim’s account. As a result, it presents the assault as a failure of user operated moderation tools rather than the limits of top-down moderation. Nevertheless, this VR groping illustrates the difficulty of moderating VR, and the enduring value of tools that let users solve problems for themselves.
The user explains that they reported and blocked the groper, and a Facebook “guide”, an experienced user trained and certified by Facebook, failed to intervene. They write, “I think what made it worse, was even after I reported, and eventually blocked the assaulter, the guide in the plaza did and said nothing.” In the interest of transparency, I have republished the beta user’s post in full, sans identifying information, here;
**Trigger Warning** Sexual Harassment. My apologies for the long post: Feel free to move on.
I rarely wake up with a heavy heart and a feeling of anger to start a fresh new day, but that is how I feel this morning. I want to be seen and heard. I reach out to my fellow community members in hopes of understanding and reassurance that they will be proactive in supporting victims and eliminating certain types of behavior in horizon worlds. My expectations as a creator in horizon worlds aren’t unreasonable and I’m sure many will agree.
You see this isn’t the first time, I’m sure it won’t be the last time that someone has sexually harassed me in virtual reality. Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular Internet but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense. 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. I think what made it worse, was even after I reported, and eventually blocked the assaulter, the guide in the plaza did and said nothing. He moved himself far across the map as if to say, you’re on your now.
Even though my physical body was far removed from the event, my brain is tricked into thinking it’s real, because…..you know……Virtual REALITY. We can’t tout VR’s realness and then lay claim that it is not a real assault. Mind you, this all happened within one minute of arriving in the plaza, I hadn’t spoken a word yet and could have possibly been a 12-year-old girl.
I would like a personal bubble that will force people away from my avatar and I would like to be able to upload my own recording with my harassment ticket. I would also like that all guides are given sensitivity training on this specific subject, so they will understand what is expected. If META won’t give guides tools that will allow them to remove a player immediately from a situation, at least train them to deal with it and not run away.
Rant over, I’m still mad, but I will sort through and process. I love this community and the thought of leaving it makes me deeply sad. So I am hopeful we can evolve as a community and foster behaviors that support collaboration, understand, and a willingness to speak out against gross behaviors.
Initial coverage in The Verge did not mention the victim’s use of the block feature, even as the user describes using it in the post above. Instead, reporter Alex Heath relayed Facebook’s account of the incident, saying “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.”
These details are important because subsequent writing about the incident builds on the false, but purported non-use of the blocking feature to make the case that offering users tools to control their virtual experience is “unfair and doesn’t work.” In Technology Review, Tanya Basu makes hay of the user’s failure to use the “safe zone” feature, which temporarily removes users from their surroundings. Yet this is a red herring. The user might not have immediately disappeared into her safe zone, but she used the block feature to do away with her assailant.
In reality, contra Basu or Facebook’s description of events, it seems that user-directed blocking put a stop to the harm while the platform provided community guide failed to intervene. VR groping is a serious issue, but it is not one that will be solved from the top-down. Inaccurate reporting that casts user-operated moderation tools as ineffective may spur platforms to pursue less effective solutions to sexual harassment in VR.
Implications of the incident’s misreporting aside, it provides a useful case study in the difficulties of moderating VR. One suggestion put forward by the user and backed by University of Washington Professor Katherine Cross warrants discussion. Closer inspection of their proposals illustrates the careful tradeoffs that inform the current safe zone and blocking tools offered to Horizon users.
They request a “personal bubble that will force people away from my avatar” or “automatic personal distance unless two people mutually agreed to be closer.” This might make some groping harder, but it creates other opportunities for abuse.
If players’ avatars can take up physical space and block movement, keeping others at bay, then they can block doorways and trap other players in corners or against other parts of world. Player collision could render abuse inescapable or allow players to hold others’ avatars prisoner.
MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games) have long struggled with this problem – “holding the door” is only a contextually heroic action. Player collision makes gameplay more realistic, but allows some players to limit everyone else’s access to important buildings by loitering in the doorway.
Currently, players’ avatars in Horizon may pass through one another. They can retreat into a safe zone, disappearing from the world. They can also “block” other users – preventing both the blocked and blocking users from seeing one another. Even through a block, they can still see one each other’s nametags – total invisibility created problems I covered here. As such, the current suite of user moderation tools strikes a good balance between empowering users and minimizing new opportunities for misuse.
Finally, given the similarity of the transgression, it is worth recalling Julian Dibbell’s “A Rape in Cyberspace”, one of the first serious accounts of community governance online. In this Village Voice article, Dibbell relates how users of role-playing chatroom LambdaMOO (the best virtual reality to be had in 1993) responded to a string of virtual sexual assaults. After fruitless deliberation, a LambdaMOO coder banned the offending user. After the incident, LambdaMOO established democratic procedures for banning abusive users, and created a “boot” command allowing users to temporarily remove troublemakers.
As the internet has developed content moderation has centralized. Today, users are usually expected to let platforms moderate for them. However, just as in the web’s early days, empowering users remains the best solution to interpersonal abuse. The tools they need to keep themselves safe may be different, but in virtual reality as in role-playing chat, those closest to abuse are best positioned to address it. Users being harassed should not be expected to wait for the mods.
Will Duffield is a Policy Analyst at the Cato Institute