May 18, 2022

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With the metaverse allowing people to create entire universes according to their will, some people ask ‘What could possibly go wrong’ while others shudder as they imagine precisely that. 

Recently, the nightmarish possibilities became real on Roblox, an online gaming platform launched in 2006. A world-building game, Roblox allows users to program games and play games created by other users. These types of games were primitive precursors for the metaverse. Unlike more traditional games, the content is generated by its users.The game is popular and has over 164 million monthly active users. It is especially popular with kids and is played by over half of all children aged under 16 in the US.  In 2020 Roblox told Bloomberg that two-thirds of all US children between the ages of nine and 12, use the game.

As expected, given such creative freedom, darker desires manifest. Roblox sex games are commonly referred to on the platform as “condos”. They are “worlds” in which the users can discuss and even have their avatars engage in virtual sex. Condos violate the platform’s terms of service and are usually taken down within an hour. The game also has parental controls that can be used to exclude children from such activities. But the parents must be aware of the controls and activate them.

“We know there is an extremely small subset of users who deliberately try to break the rules,” a spokesperson told the BBC.”We conduct a safety review of every single image, video, and audio file uploaded to Roblox, using a combination of human and machine detection.”

Roblox told the BBC: “We have zero tolerance for sexual content or behavior of any kind, and we take swift action against anyone found to be acting in breach of our Community Standards.”

It should be noted that even though Roblox is primarily a game for children, adults can use the system to engage with children. The virtual reality game offers a format for users, both old and tragically young, to act out and realize sexual scenarios they would not engage in real life. \

An even more disturbing form of gameplay was revealed by the Daily Mail. One of its correspondents discovered a Roblox platform titled “Camp Concentration”. In the player-created scenario, pushing a button labeled ‘execute’ released deadly poison gas from showerheads. In the chat, players commented on the deaths. The camp featured a pyre of burning bodies. Watchtowers flying flags with the Gerrman cross were manned by armed soldiers in black uniforms. The Daily Mail reporter accessed cell blocks and lock himself in to ‘experience’ the plight of prisoners.

Such disturbing manifestations of human nature are endemic to the metaverse. Facebook announced two weeks ago that it would be adding a four-foot “personal boundary” between avatars in its  Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues platforms. Facebook stated that the measure will “help to set behavioral norms”.

The precaution comes after Nina Jane Patel, vice president of Metaverse Research at Kabuni Ventures, said that as she tested the game, she was sexually abused by four male avatars, according to a December Medium post.

 Since the metaverse is so new, the legal ramifications of online harassment are still unclear. Even if the online comments and virtual actions are deemed actionable, anonymity makes enforcement nearly impossible.

A 2009 study in Sage Journals titled “The Proteus Effect: Implications of Transformed Digital Self-Representation on Online and Offline Behavior” concluded that certain characteristics of avatars can affect online and subsequent offline behavior.

Roblox’s founders are vocally supportive of social justice initiatives, with its co-founder, David Baszucki, and several prominent users publicly declaring their support for the George Floyd protests and Black Lives Matter. Nonetheless, in August 2019, an investigation by NBC News revealed over 100 accounts linked to far-right and neo-Nazi groups. After being contacted about the accounts by NBC, Roblox moderators removed them.