Metaverse: BBC News researcher Jess Sherwood posed as a 13-year-old girl and, using the Meta Quest headset, entered the metaverse of VRChat, the virtual platform available to all users as long as they have an active Facebook account through of the headset. She says she opened a fake account, without any problems, and went on to explore the universe, an immersive experience that “more felt like a playground for adults than children.”
According to the journalist, the virtual environment featured several rooms, many overtly sexualized in neon pink, reminiscent of “the red light district in Amsterdam or the more decadent parts of London’s Soho at night”. As she explored her surroundings, she discovered everyday scenarios, such as McDonald’s restaurants, but also pole dancing rooms and strip clubs, in which children mixed with adults freely.
The immersion experience was surprising, explains Sherwood, but “when adult men asked me why I wasn’t in school and encouraged me to perform sex acts in virtual reality, it felt quite unsettling.” With her teenage avatar, she claims to have witnessed grooming, sexual material, racist slurs and even a threat of rape to a “seven-year-old girl”.
What do the owners of the metaverses say?
Sought by the London broadcaster, VRChat only gave generic statements, such as “working hard to become a safe and welcoming place for everyone”. The company’s spokesperson also assured that “predatory and toxic behavior has no place on the platform”.
Meta’s Product Manager for VR Integrity Bill Stillwell, however, preferred to issue a statement: “We want everyone who uses our products to have a good experience and easily find the tools that can help in situations like these, so we can investigate and Act”. That is, there is no indication that the situation will change, but there will be “tools that allow players to report and block users”.