Let’s make the metaverse safe for women

My first look at the Metaverse was quite a memorable experience. I went to one of the more popular social metaverse worlds and moments after loading into the zone I was accosted by a number of what looked like teenagers.

Some started asking, “Will you marry me?” and others called me all kinds of sexist insults and slurs. Many of the boy avatars looked like over-sexualized, anime-style young girls wearing nothing but underwear and bras. Being surrounded by half a dozen 13-year-old boys using overtly sexual avatars while shouting obscenities can be quite shocking. I attempted to elude them by leaving the area, only for one of the stalkers to find me within minutes and direct his entourage of college angst in my direction. After this cycle was repeated several times, I lost my temper and disconnected thinking to myself, “How could a woman appreciate that? That’s when I learned what harassment can look like in the metaverse.

The Metaverse is a network of immersive online worlds accessible via virtual reality or augmented reality headsets. It is a digital life, parallel to the real world, where users can interact with markets, educational institutions, virtual offices, social networks and gaming experiences, while wearing a personalized avatar. Many tech and investment leaders believe the Metaverse will soon be a huge part of our economy, providing endless sources of entertainment and job opportunities. Forbes recently wrote that “the metaverse is going to be a trillion dollar industry”. But these new centers of entertainment and work are not always safe for women.

My experience was not unique. Stories of women being stalked in the metaverse are rife.

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Unsurprisingly, many reasonable people are simply not interested in such stories. “Of course people misbehave on the internet,” they say. “That’s why you shouldn’t meet people on the internet!”

This perspective ignores how dependent Americans, especially young Americans, have become on the Internet for dating. According to eHarmony, “20% of current committed relationships began online” and up to “40% of Americans use online dating.” As of 2019, according to The Knot, the number one way for Americans to form new, lasting romantic relationships is to meet online, before meeting with friends, at school and at work. To suggest that people should ditch the way they go out #1 is like telling people to stop driving because the roads aren’t safe, rather than accepting that we need to fix the roads.

The stories of harassment in the metaverse are actually stories about how the developers of many metaverse platforms have failed to make them safe for women, and the ramifications of those failures. The solution is to fix these platforms rather than discourage women from entering the metaverse.

I’m a founding partner of a company called FireFlare Games, and we’re creating VR dating in the metaverse with women’s safety at the forefront. We call it Planet Theta. As founder, I have strived to ensure that our team has the insight needed to develop and integrate cutting-edge technologies to protect everyone. My hope is that Planet Theta will become a model for other metaverse platforms.

Metaverse development is a male-dominated field. Besides a few supporting artists, the industry is almost entirely made up of men. The results are not surprising: many metaverse platforms seem to ignore women’s concerns.

Our team’s research revealed that men and women have very different concerns when it comes to using dating apps. Men’s main concern is being tricked – lied about the identity, personality or appearance of the real person behind the avatar they are interacting with. The main concern of women? Security. Women fear being assaulted in the metaverse, or worse in real life. So, in a field dominated by men, it’s no surprise that app developers have come up with plenty of creative solutions to combat catfishing through features like verified profiles and verified photos. As for protecting women’s safety, most have left it to women to protect themselves.

Many women agree that meeting in person for the first time after meeting someone on a dating app is scary and dangerous. My girlfriends and I make it a rule never to go on a first date from a dating app without the help of a friend. At least one of us will agree on a check-in time with a secret code known to both parties to signal that all is well. Although women have found new ways to protect and protect themselves, the dating industry itself has failed.

I want to make sure everyone has an equal chance to experience the metaverse. The metaverse is coming, and it will be bigger than the internet. There’s no way to stop it. But there is a chance to make it safer.

Aurora Townsend is Marketing Director of Planet Theta. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.

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