A tech executive is warning of the dangers of the Metaverse after claiming she was “gang raped.”
Nina Patel, a psychotherapist and start-up co-founder of Kabuni, an educational web site, said she was targeted by four anonymous and supposedly male attackers, merely for appearing online with a female avatar — just 60 seconds after signing up for the first time.
One, she recalled, even said, “Don’t pretend you didn’t love it.”
“They relentlessly harassed me and then proceeded to (what can only be described) as the sexual assault of my avatar,” the virtual victim told the Daily Mail, describing the violent encounter as “surreal” and “horrible.”
The attack occurred inside the virtual reality game called Horizon Worlds, operated by Meta. The assailants yelled obscenities at her and took photos of her avatar while subjecting her to the ritual humiliation, Patel said.
She added: “Their behavior was offensive and disturbing.”
Patel said that anonymity and lack of accountability in VR spaces are partly to blame for the plight she suffered.
“Some people may engage in such offensive behaviors in VR settings because they feel detached from their real-world identities and believe they can act without facing any repercussions,” said Patel, an early adopter of VR technology.
“Another issue potentially is that on some VR platforms, aggressive and violent behavior is encouraged and rewarded.”
While virtual reality is artificial, the real-life ramifications are not — Patel argues that the aftermath can have “profound emotional and psychological impacts.”
“The intensity of experiences in the Metaverse can mirror the emotions felt in the physical world due to the immersive nature of these environments,” she said.
“This can lead to real trauma and psychological distress akin to those experienced in physical assaults.”
Patel’s harrowing experiences coincides with a similar case of a teenage girl in Britain, who contacted the police after she was assaulted in the metaverse. Law enforcement officials compared her psychological trauma to that of someone physically assaulted, due to the immersive nature of VR.
“The girl [who reported her attack to the police] is very brave, and she is on a new frontier,” Patel applauded.
“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.”
A researcher from the non-profit SumOfUs, which published a report about the “rampant” harassment and abuse in the Metaverse and the lack of action against users who broke the game’s rules — was attacked within an hour of joining the VR space.
“It happened so fast I kind of disassociated,” the anonymous researcher said. One part of my brain was like wtf is happening, the other part was like this isn’t a real body, and another part was like, this is important research.”
A Meta representative said that the attack was a result of not turning on the “Personal Boundary” feature; when activated, it does not allow non-friends to come within four feet of your character.
Patel, however, could not activate hers in time because she “froze.”
“Most users of virtual reality have reported they had encountered racism, homophobia, and sexual harassment, either directed at them personally or at others,” Patel said.
“When someone is in a VR environment, their brain often perceives the experiences as genuine, and they may feel real emotions such as excitement, fear, joy, or even a sense of presence in the virtual world.”
While negative experiences might “deter” others, Patel instead insists she’s focused on the “potential benefits of the Metaverse,” while also highlighting the need for more safety measures and “responsible design.”
“Today, we find ourselves at a critical juncture where we have the opportunity to establish the foundation for a Metaverse that brings more positive impact than harm,” she said, hoping her story can “advocate for a safer Metaverse.”
Until then, Patel isn’t convinced the violent behaviors in the virtual world will cease.
“I am not the first, and the British girl who recently experienced it and brought it to the police will not be the last,” she said.