By: Risa Kunitake
The robot winks at me, holding out its hand invitingly. After I wipe the sweat off of my hand, I reach for it. The music starts. The robot is counting down. 3, 2,…
With my left hand, I swiftly take out the cassette, and I can see the tables and seats of Studio X again. I stand there dazed, asking myself, “Was I really about to dance with a computer-generated image of a robot?”
That was my first time interacting with the world of virtual reality. To be completely honest, I was pretty skeptical of the tool when I was first told that we would be immersed in “another reality” with an Oculus. After all, how is something made of computer codes “real”?
But that turned out to be wrong; I was inside a whole new world. The ping pong ball I threw made a sound every time it bounced, and the paper airplane flew in the direction I aimed it towards. And the robot. I was ready to flail my arms and legs in the middle of Studio X, all because I would feel bad if I refused to take its hand. Then it hit me. I’m in a virtual world. It wouldn’t care if put an end to its silly actions by taking out the cassette. It wouldn’t know. It is not real.
One of the most interesting things about this experience was the constant shift between believing that the things I interact with are real and wondering why I keep following the directions of computer codes. I constantly questioned whether I should behave the way I do in the physical world or whether I should do whatever I feel like because of the lack of consequences in VR. You can probably guess the answer to that question based on the way I mercilessly declined the dace invitation by “ending” the robot’s life.
The case for my mischievous act was minor. However, could this virtual world, where actions barely come with consequences, be misused by users with malicious intent? The answer is a certain yes, and it even has a coined term in the virtual world—metaverse crime.
What is “metaverse crime”?
Metaverse crimes, as described by Integrity Asia, include physical world crimes such as theft and harassment, the only difference being that they are committed in the virtual world.
For example, “virtual rape” occurs when a user is forcibly put into a sexual situation against their will in the virtual world, according to the Freedom From Fear Magazine. In the metaverse, users are able to make avatars that live in the virtual space, and they can interact with one another. With the advancement in graphics and design, these interactions between avatars have become more realistic. While this may seem like an advantage to those looking for a more immersive VR experience, it has also created an opportunity for users with malicious intent to exploit the technology.
In another instance, public riots in the virtual world have created turmoil in the metaverse. A recent virtual political campaign in Spain, for example, led to virtual riots and harassment between disagreeing political parties, states the Freedom From Fear Magazine.
In a world that is built to mimic reality as accurately as possible, the occurrence of virtual crimes has become more common. As presented in these examples, the lack of consequences in VR and uncertainty surrounding the gravity of metaverse crimes has led to misconduct among users in the virtual world.
Can actions in VR impact avatars?
However, some have argued that virtual crimes do not need to be considered real because after all, the “people” in the metaverse are solely avatars made up of computer codes, and a computer code cannot cause harm nor be harmed. The consequences of our actions in the physical world do not apply in the same way in the metaverse.
In order to answer the question of whether virtual crimes are real crimes, we have to consider this key question—is VR a real world? The answer has been widely debated, with some arguing that it is as real as the world we live in. For instance, David Calmers, author of the book Reality +, explores the philosophical nature of virtual worlds and argues that the metaverse is a real world where users can “lead a fully meaningful life.” Based on this argument, the interactions we make as avatars in VR should come with real consequences similar to those in the physical world. Therefore, crimes committed by an avatar against another avatar would be considered a “real crime.” Others counter that users and avatars are separate entities, and any actions imposed by the user will not have any effects on the avatars. In this case, any action that resembles a crime in the physical world would not get punished in the metaverse. If we were to come to a conclusion between the two, I would have to publish a book (or even multiple!) that considers the many components that make up “reality.” I will leave it up to you to decide on the answer to this question.
Based on my experience at Studio X, however, VR felt very real. Just the fact that I could pick up a ball, throw paper planes, and even dance with a robot, made me forget about my surroundings and the physical world for a while. It was to the point where I felt a slight sense of guilt toward a robot when I refused to take its hand for a dance. Now, imagine if there was a human being with emotions and feelings behind the robot. I know for certain that my sense of guilt would increase if I knew that a living person was offering me a hand on the dance floor. Although not everyone may experience these feelings towards avatars in the same way, actions committed in the metaverse can bring out real emotions in the user. This can also apply to metaverse crimes. A crime committed against an avatar has the potential to impact the user in control. It would be an underestimate of VR’s immersive nature to say that interactions between avatars do not affect human emotions.
What can be done?
Unfortunately, the complete erasure of crimes in the virtual world is near impossible, as it is difficult to track every user and record all evidence of possible crimes. Although existing laws are sometimes considered in the punishing of metaverse crimes, the regulations are gray and not centralized, differing between metaverse platforms. Regulations alone will not eliminate all criminal activities in VR.
Instead of solely creating punishments for metaverse crimes, a better solution would be to prevent them from occurring in the first place, just as we do in the physical world According to Mazer, Meta has established a safety boundary to prevent avatars from getting too close to one another. Although this solution certainly has its limitations, further investigation of the root causes of metaverse crime will help us come up with improved safety protocols. By creating more preventative measures and enforcing stronger privacy systems, we can continue to exist in the virtual world, safely and comfortably.
Integrity Asia. “Exploring Crimes in the Metaverse,” February 22, 2023.
Goodman, Mark. “Crime and Policing in Virtual Worlds.” Freedom From Fear Magazine (blog), January 16, 2014.
David J. Chalmers, Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (Penguin Press, 2023).
Mazer. “Crime in the Metaverse,” September 7, 2022. https://mazerspace.com/crime-in-the-metaverse/.
Oculus Quest | First Steps, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLsAnrsXoxA&ab_channel=MetaQuest.
Cava, Marco della. “Your Friends (and You) Become Cartoon Avatars in Facebook Virtual Reality.” USA TODAY. Accessed September 28, 2023. https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/news/2017/04/18/facebook-spaces-vr-leverages-oculus-rift-and-touch/100585050/.
Thank you to my peer reviewers Will and Paul and my professor Kate for providing me with
feedback during the drafting process. I used Zotero to help me with the citations and Grammarly for
spelling and grammar checks.