A virtual assault in the metaverse can have very real psychological consequences (Picture: Getty Images/Nancy Hurman)
The faceless cartoon avatar gives little away about its creator – and the content they are making.
However, look closely and you’ll find that one of their YouTube videos shockingly shows children how to implement a ‘rape hack’ on the game Roblox.
Athough the video has since been taken down after Metro.co.uk alerted the video streaming platform to its presence, delve even deeper and you’ll find a range of horrifying videos that reflect a worrying trend in online sexual assault. The attacks take place in cyberspace, but that doesn’t make them any less real.
Just this week, police confirmed an investigation was underway after a young girl was virtually raped within the metaverse.
A group of male avatars swarmed round the 16-year-old victim as she explored the metaverse. It was an experience that left the teenager with crippling emotional trauma. However, it’s not the first attack of its kind, and it certainly won’t be the last.
Psychotherapist Nina Jane Patel knows too well that escaping such an attack is not as easy as ‘just taking the headset off’.
In 2021, while exploring Horizon Venues it took just 60 seconds before her avatar was virtually gang-raped.
Nina spoke out about her experience of virtual rape within the metaverse (Picture: Nina Jane Patel)
The players who attacked her took screenshots of the incident and, as she grappled to remove her headset, shouted ‘don’t pretend you didn’t love it’ and ‘go rub yourself off to the photo’.
A sense of panic ‘bubbled up’ within Nina and she likened her reaction, of shock and hurt, to being physically attacked on the street.
For the uninitiated, when a user wears a VR headshot, the real world is blocked out – even if temporarily. The metaverse has been sculpted so the mind and body can’t differentiate virtual experiences from real ones.
Society hasn’t quite reached Ready Player One-esque levels where gaming seeps into the masses’ daily lives, mostly due to the cost and early stages of the technology. But, for the next generation, it’s only time before their real and virtual life become far more intertwined.
In the years since her assault, Nina has advocated for legislation to protect children online and continued to research the good, the bad and the ugly of the virtual world.
In her original blog post about the incident, she wrote about feeling ‘frozen’ in the ‘nightmare’ despite being physically safe in her living room.
What is the metaverse?
The word metaverse is a combination of ‘the prefix meta, meaning ‘beyond’ and ‘universe’. It’s a shared online space where real and digital worlds become one.
A headset is donned before the user can explore a virtual world via an avatar. You can meet and interact with other users through platforms and games such as Horizon Worlds.
Children’s charity the NSPCC estimates that 15% of children aged between five and ten have used a virtual reality headset, and 6% use one daily.
Companies hope the metaverse will continue to engage and attract younger audiences as the technology improves.
‘I’m not surprised that there is now police investigation into sexual assault in the metaverse,’ Nina tells Metro.co.uk.
‘The girl involved is very brave. Bringing this to the attention of the police would have been no easy task and she is breaking ground with her actions. While we don’t know where it will lead, it is a step in the right direction.
‘An assault in the metaverse – while occurring in a virtual setting – can have very real psychological consequences. The intensity of experiences in the metaverse can mirror the emotions felt in the physical world due to the immersive nature of these environments.’
However it’s not just the metaverse where such attacks are taking place.
In 2018, Amber Peterson watched in horror as male avatars jumped on top of her child’s character in a ‘violent gang rape’ within the game Roblox. Her daughter’s avatar was left ‘laying on her face in the middle of the playground.’
On YouTube, videos can be found on how to implement a ‘rape hack’ within the popular online game. In one, viewed 38,000 times and uploaded by a user with a cartoon character as their profile picture, the act is carried out within a mini-game called ‘Family Paradise’.
A ‘cartoonlike’ depiction of a ‘rape hack’ is demonstrated in a now-deleted YouTube video (Picture: YouTube)
The video in question has since been removed since Metro raised it to Google, which owns YouTube.
Catherine Hamilton-Giachritsis, an academic at Bath University, has specialised in child psychology for 30 years and researched online sexual abuse for a decade. She was left in shock after the above ‘rape hack’ video was shown to her by Metro.co.uk.
‘We’re used to offenders sharing that kind of content with other offenders’, Catherine tells Metro.co.uk. Having watched it, she feels the video was possibly created by a child due to the ‘cartoonish’ nature.
She adds: ‘But to think that a child could be posting something like this is quite shocking. It’s horrifying that it’s so accessible on YouTube.
‘Some of those views will be children watching and thinking it’s funny to make Roblox do something it shouldn’t. They won’t fully understand what the rape aspect means.
‘Others will have clicked on the video and be horrified. Much in the same way people watch horror films – they almost get stuck.’
Users can become fully immersed in a virtual space through their avatars (Picture: Getty Images)
There’s less accountability in games, Catherine explains. With ‘no consequences’, users act in a way that would ‘never occur to them’ in an offline world.
Due to the technological advancements of kit such as the Oculus Rift, Meta Quest and PlayStation VR, it can also be easy to forget you’re wearing a headset. A Stanford study found that younger children could be unable to distinguish between virtual reality and reality, being able to create ‘false memories’.
For those who claim users should just take their headset off or press an escape buttom, these sort of comments amount to victim blaming, Catherine says.
‘These attacks feel very real,’ she says. ‘When a child gets asked “why didn’t you take the headset off,” that reflects a lack of understanding.
‘A child might have been manipulated to be in that situation. When an attack takes place, we often see the ‘fight, flight or freeze” response. In a case like a virtual rape, a young person can be so shocked that ripping the headset off probably hasn’t even occurred to them.
‘The whole point of immersive VR is that it’s designed to trick our brains into thinking we are in a setting we aren’t actually in. We’ve been shown through research that online abuse can have the same impact as an offline attack, in terms of reactions such as suicidality, PTSD and depression.
‘There are additional complexities online and now in the metaverse, which makes things very difficult now for parents to monitor.’
Around 6% of children aged between five and ten use a VR headset daily (Picture: Getty Images)
Dr Maryhan Baker, a child psychologist and parenting expert, has also stressed how confusing a virtual assault can be on a child.
‘All our usual mechanisms from real life – of safeguarding ourselves and knowing our exit strategies – can be lost in the metaverse,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
‘We find ourselves acting in a way that we never would in a face-to-face interaction.’
While parents may feel tempted to take drastic action when responding to news of virtual rapes and attacks within the gaming world, taking away devices or limiting screen time could backfire, she warns.
‘When we demonise technology, we create a wedge between our children’, she adds. ‘Creating an open space to talk and showing an interest means your child won’t creep away to play these games secretly.’
Currently, it is unclear what outcome the police investigation into the metaverse virtual rape could have. If the culprit is found, it will be a vital test for the much-lauded Online Safety Bill, a set of laws which aim to protect children and adults online.
I explored Horizon Worlds, this is what I found
Jessica didn’t find a ‘full proof’ system, but was reassured by clear examples of player safety
Metro.co.uk’s Jessica Lindsay writes:
So far I’ve only used my Oculus to play silly games where you walk a tightrope or ride a rollercoaster, but this was my first time trying Horizon. I spent a lot of time when I was younger on sites like Habbo Hotel where creepy things went down, so I figured it’d be like that but on steroids (given you can actually hear and speak to strangers around the world). It was surprisingly less chaotic, though, and it seems like the majority of people are just on there for the novelty of VR.
When you sign up, it shows a ton of warnings about bad behaviour and parental controls, and some of the worlds are labelled 18+, while others are advertised as specifically for kids. I decided to go into a bar world, which asks you to do a task before coming in to vet your age – pulling a bar apart as wide as you can. This isn’t foolproof, as presumably taller kids would be able to bypass it, but it does help.
In the bar, there were lots of people playing games like shuffleboard and beer pong. You can pick up virtual drinks, walk around and chat to other patrons, and generally do all the normal things you’d do at the pub. I played Pictionary with a man from Georgia, who was really polite and helpful when I couldn’t work the controls. When I asked him about in-game safety, he explained that there’s a robust reporting system and users who violate the rules can be banned from using Horizon entirely, while different worlds can ban users from entering.
I noticed there were a few players chasing someone else around. At first I was alarmed but it turned out they were trying to catch an under-18 who’d snuck in.
In general, everyone I spoke to was perfectly pleasant and this didn’t feel like the wild west of awfulness I witnessed in the early days of the internet.
I’ve no doubt there are nefarious people on any large social network – a problem that’ll surely increase as more people join – but like in the real world, it seems that they’re thankfully in the minority.
Still in its infancy and there are debates about how far the Bill should go, but the measures could regulate tech companies in a way we’ve never seen before.
For Nina, it’s only the beginning. Widespread legislation should be created to criminalise acts of grooming, bullying, and harassment in virtual environments, the expert says.
Stricter penalties for perpetrators of ‘virtual crime’ should be implemented on a worldwide scale if real change is to be made.
‘The global and borderless nature of the metaverse adds an extra layer of complexity,’ she says.
‘Protecting children in the metaverse requires a multi-faceted approach: psychologically informed safeguards to prevent trauma, robust legal frameworks to define and prosecute offenses, and international cooperation to effectively enforce these laws.’
Virtual reality is taking off, albeit at a slower pace than thought (Picture: Getty Images)
Moving forward, Mark Zuckerberg has high hopes for the metaverse, predicting that a billion people will soon be using the virtual space, while new inventions could tempt more people to the digital playground.
Scientists are working on a special type of ‘skin’ that would allow people to ‘feel’ items in virtual reality. Electric impulses can mimic sensations such as catching a ball or a bird pecking at the skin – and while impressive, are things which could make virtual assaults all the more terrifying.
For Catherine – who is currently working on a study pertaining to the abuse of children on social media and within gaming – discussions on internet safety need to be at the forefront of decision-maker’s minds.
‘Gaming is a key area where offenders target young people, because it’s less relegated’, she explains.
‘Developers want to give people privacy, but the difficulty is that when you do that, you enable these spaces for people who want to misuse them. This is not going to be the last reported case of virtual rape.’
In the time since her own experience with a virtual attack, Nina has given a speech in the House of Lords, carried out research with the University of the East of London and worked with her organisation Kabuni to bolster online safety discussions.
‘While the metaverse opens up new worlds of interaction and experience, it also necessitates a thoughtful approach to its potential human impact,’ she says.
‘It calls for an evolved understanding of human rights, personal safety, and mental well-being in digital realms, along with legal structures that can adapt to these novel challenges.’
When contacted, Meta explained a whole host of provisions in place to reduce incidents such as profile privacy settings, age restrictions and chat filters.
Roblox stressed that strict moderation and enforcement action is in place to minimise risks. Players can get banned for breaching rules. A spokesperson told Metro.co.uk: ‘We have a safety-first culture at Roblox and we have a robust set of safety features designed specifically to protect the younger members of our community, including a strict set of Community Standards which expressly prohibits content or user behaviour that depicts sexual activity.’
Google – owner of YouTube – has also been contacted by Metro.co.uk for comment.
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On YouTube, you can even find shocking videos teach users how to implement a ‘rape hack’ to take control of another player’s avatar.