Despite the vastness of the VTubing community itself, only a handful of VTubers and individuals themselves who engage in research related to VTubing, including how they thrive in virtual spaces, and how one can be prone to harassment in the metaverse.
For our next NewsDrop Spotlight, we've sat down with Swiss anthropologist Mila (Liudmila Bredikhina) and metaverse culture evangelist Virtual Girl Nem. The duo recently released the data results of their survey tackling perspectives and insights related to harassment in the metaverse.
Nem, who is an official ambassador of HTC’s VR headset brand Vive, recently published a book titled Metaverse Evolution Theory, based on data collected from their 2021 Social VR Lifestyle Survey, which asked about how they feel using digital spaces, including pros and cons.
Meanwhile, Liudmila Bredikhina is a well-versed researcher, having a degree of Master of Arts in Asian Studies. She has devoted her recent research into the aspect of virtual spaces and virtual influencers. Some of her published studies include Virtual Theatrics and the Ideal VTuber Bishōjo (2021), Designing identity in VTuber Era (2020) and Becoming a Virtual Cutie: Digital Cross-Dressing in Japan (2022). Her research, titled Babiniku: what lies behind the virtual performance, won an award from her alumni Université de Genève in Switzerland.
NewsDrop recently sat down with the duo related to more perspectives on their end about their research, following their recent appearance at VRDays Europe, held in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.
Virtual Harassment Happens More with Female Avatars
NewsDrop: Part of your research conclusion states that even biological male users were also prone to harassment in the metaverse due to using feminine avatars. What other trends over the past few years would you say affected such notable statement?
Mila: As we noticed with our survey, feminine-looking avatars tend to be more harassed than masculine-looking ones. In the metaverse, when you first see a feminine-looking avatar (without talking to them or hearing their voice) you cannot directly know whether they are male or female inside.
As such, even if the user is a male but is using a feminine-looking avatar, they are at risk of facing harassment, as the target is precisely their virtual appearance. That phenomenon already exists in online games and is not new.
See Something, (Do) Something
Your research also unveiled that there were a large amount of users who have witnessed harassment in the metaverse. Were there any observations/statements where do you think people could have intervened during that situation?
Mila: We did not have an open question for that so unfortunately, I do not have a direct answer to that. So, unfortunately, I cannot say. However, I can share my personal experience. I have witnessed a user being harassed and their friends protecting them by staying close to the person and also blocking the malicious individual.
Nem: When I went to unsafe places, I was forced to see disturbing avatars and listen to unpleasant sounds. Also, I was followed around, and so on. However, in the Metaverse, there are many ways to protect oneself, such as hiding, muting, or blocking the other person. I don't hesitate to use those functions if I feel even a bit uncomfortable. Once it’s over, I forget about it immediately.
Why Verbal Harassment is More Common
In your classification of harassment in the metaverse, one of those was verbal. There is a large group of respondents who have experienced such harassment. Why is that so?
Mila: Because it's the "easiest" to do in a sense. Unfortunately, we live in a world where verbal abuse, be it virtual or physical, is the most common as it's the "easiest" to accomplish for the malicious individual. Moreover, given that the harassment is virtual, it is "easier" to harass as there is no physical confrontation.
What Could Platforms Do to Decrease Harassment?
You report that VRChat is the most prominent platform where harassment in virtual spaces often happens. As researchers, what do you think are key areas for the platform to improve in order to lessen these incidents?
Mila: I would say a better moderation system. If there are repeated malicious users, their IP should be blocked. Also, users need better tools to defend themselves.
Virtual Harassment Has Not Affected Real Life... Yet
Despite the huge amount of harassment in the metaverse being noted in the survey, a majority of your respondents say this hasn't affected their physical life, nor changed their perception to VR. What both of you personally think about this conclusion?
Mila: Well, many did say that they decided to spend more time in their private worlds. Overall, I would say that was because the majority of the users did not find harassment to be of an extreme extent. As such, it might be that they perceived it as something that bothered them but not to the point of not wanting to be part of virtual worlds.
We didn't ask that question, but I wonder if certain users did not find that social VR harassment impacted their lives because of previously experienced harassment in the physical or online worlds. The link between the three could be worth investigating in the future.
Nem: This survey has demonstrated that in the metaverse, as in reality, harassment does occur, but it’s not as common. But the degree of metaverse harassment is extremely different from person to person, so we need to be careful about that.
In the end, just as in reality, the most important thing is to "put yourself in the other person's shoes.” However, since this is a world without geographic or gender boundaries, there might be difficulties and misunderstandings.
The Three Key Elements in Lessening VR Harassment
While users are saying that they are satisfied with platform guidelines, do you think there is more work to be done to lessen online harassment? If so, why or why not?
Mila: As mentioned previously, better moderation, tools, and blocking the IP of repeated malicious users. Those were also the three main requests to platforms by users. Of course, everyone wants to have a harassment-free experience in social VR or online in general. So, it's always good if something can be done.
Their Thoughts on the Media’s Coverage Regarding the Matter
In your recent statements online, particularly Nem, you criticized how the media is depicting harassment in the metaverse in a more 'overblown' manner. How much impact do you think the media has played in depicting insights about harassment in the metaverse?
Mila: While some media did a good job, basing their articles on user experience, I think there are also many that are aware that guidelines that badly depict the metaverse sell well and use that.
I wish there were more articles that actually took the time to ask the users about their experience with harassment and not run with the information they might have heard somewhere.
Also, let's not forget that social VR is new, and just like with the beginning of the Internet, people are a bit reluctant to welcome the new technology with open arms.
Nem: I felt a strong sense of crisis because, recently, the media has been overstating the dangers of the metaverse. At the same time, the government has been very proactive in wanting to regulate the metaverse. Overall, there have been discussions that are far removed from what the users feel and think. I hope this report will be a step toward a more down-to-earth discussion.
It’s Not Just a Game
As VTuber and virtual space researchers, what trends and opportunities do you see in the near future to lessen the prominence of harassment in the metaverse?
I think we should spread more awareness about the metaverse, about the fact that for some, it's not just a game; it's a place where they live. We should be respectful and mindful of each other.