Can You Really Commit a Crime in the Metaverse?

Can You Really Commit a Crime in the Metaverse?

Police in the UK are investigating the alleged “gang rape” of a 16-year-old girl in a metaverse game. The girl was wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset and playing an immersive game when her avatar was reportedly attacked by several adult male avatars.

The story has attracted international attention, mostly because of the contradictions in the nature of the alleged crime. Police said the girl suffered “psychological trauma similar to that of someone who has been physically raped,” the Daily Mail reports.

But can one commit a real-life crime like rape, or even murder, in the metaverse, a network of interconnected virtual worlds where users can meet, work, and interact using tools like VR headsets?

Also read: Could VR Shoes Become the Next Immersive Buzz in the Metaverse?

‘Glimpse into posthumanity’

As tech-themed cloud noir poet Onai Mushava puts it, the probe, said to be the first of its kind in the UK, “sees the police leaving their everyday shifts to glimpse into posthumanity.”

“It’s not clear what answers the police action will determine, whether the law enforcers are dabbling in the philosophically speculative or strictly legal,” Mushava tells MetaNews.

“The law is testing the contours of an inexorably disrupted world where the difference between the virtual and the social has become almost impossible to determine.”

While British police officers believe the alleged offenders have a case to answer, reactions to an Instagram post for a story about the matter in the New York Post were skeptical. Many people questioned the force’s priorities.

“Can we focus on real-life crime, please?” one user said. “I’m sorry, but that is so f***ing disrespectful to people who have actually been assaulted. It’s not even remotely the same thing,” said another.

“Really? This is what the police are wasting their time on,” complained yet another user. “And it could have all been over with the click of a button. This is ridiculous” “Virtual police doing the investigating?”

“I was killed in [the war video game Call of Duty],” one person said scornfully. “Been waiting for my killer to be brought to justice.”

This last comment is especially striking. It draws parallels between two supposedly egregious crimes committed in a virtual world but treated somewhat differently by law enforcement in real life.

UK Home Secretary James Cleverly defended the virtual rape investigation. He told LBC’s Breakfast program: “I know it is easy to dismiss this as not being real, but the whole point of these virtual environments is that they are incredibly immersive.”

Can You Really Commit a Crime in the Metaverse?

Not all metaverse ‘crimes’ are the same

Nancy Jo Sales, author of “Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno,” thinks that comparing ‘rape and murder’ in the metaverse is like comparing apples and oranges.

“The difference, of course, is that while Call of Duty players can expect to be virtually killed sometimes as part of the game, the girl had no reason to expect that she would be raped,” she writes in an opinion published by The Guardian.

“It isn’t yet known what game she was playing when the alleged assault occurred, but obviously there isn’t an online game where the goal for adult players is to rape children. The fact that they are able to in the metaverse is the issue at the heart of this case.”

The question of whether anyone could be raped in a virtual space dates back to 1993, when tech journalist Julian Dibbell published an article in the Village Voice about “a rape in cyberspace.”

The piece brought issues of online abuse to light that had not been heard much of during its time. Dibbell spoke about how the people whose avatars had been sexually assaulted in a virtual community felt the same kind of trauma as those who suffered physical rape.

Slava Demchuk, cofounder of crypto cybercrime tool AMLBot, says misconduct and crimes such as online hate speech, defamation, and insider trading “do happen” in virtual reality and the metaverse.

“If the [British] police are able to prove that the person experienced sexual trauma due to an incident in the metaverse, the perpetrator might face legal consequences,” Demchuk told MetaNews.

“The nature of these consequences, whether administrative or criminal, would be determined by the court. As the metaverse evolves, we’re likely to see more such cases.”

Can You Really Commit a Crime in the Metaverse?

Long-term emotional harm

For the British police, virtual rape is very real, particularly where it involves children. A senior police officer familiar with the case of the girl whose avatar was attacked in the metaverse told the Mail:

“There is an emotional and psychological impact on the victim that is longer-term than any physical injuries.”

Police investigators said the metaverse is already “rife” with sexual offenses. Meta’s Horizon Worlds has reportedly been a paradise for abusers. In 2022, metaverse researcher Nina Jane Patel wrote of the “surreal nightmare” of being gang-raped on the platform.

A spokesman for Meta said that people in its metaverse have “an automatic protection called personal boundary, which keeps people you don’t know a few feet away from you.”

Still, the UK police are worried their probe might be impossible to prosecute under current laws that limit sexual abuse to physical touching in a sexual manner without consent.

The metaverse rape case is being considered a test for the UK’s Online Safety Bill, a set of laws meant to protect both children and adults online that came into force over the last year.

Onai Mushava, the cloud noir poet, said that for ages, philosophers have “speculated a causal correspondence between a virtual dimension and our everyday world.”

“With increasing immersion, our social reality, our offline lives, and even digital disengagement have become extensions of the spectacle. Not only are we more psychologically invested, but a great many legal and political cases are outcomes of the virtual,” he added.

Image credits: Shutterstock, CC images, Midjourney, Unsplash.