You Are Not Your Avatar

“A researcher’s avatar was sexually assaulted on a metaverse platform owned by Meta, making her the latest victim of sexual abuse on Meta’s platforms, watchdog says.” That’s the headline from a Business Insider article. “A researcher entered the metaverse wanting to study users’ behavior on Meta’s social-networking platform Horizon World,” reports Weilun Soon. “But within an hour after she donned her Oculus virtual-reality headset, she says, her avatar was raped in the virtual space.” This is not an isolated case. In November, a beta tester reported that her avatar had been groped in Horizon Worlds.

But the researcher was not raped. The beta tester was not groped. These things could not possibly have happened. The virtual space is not real. You are not your avatar. You are your body—and your body remains on the plane of the actual world.

A Metaverse meme

Soon finds the researcher’s tale in a report by SumOfUs, “Metaverse: another cesspool of toxic content.” The report links to a video that purportedly shows what happened to the researcher’s avatar from her perspective. “In the video, a male avatar is seen getting very close to her, while another male avatar stands nearby, watching. A bottle of what appears to be alcohol is then passed between the two avatars, per the 28-second video. Two male voices are heard making lewd comments in the video.”

The bottle of alcohol is not real, either. It can only appear to be alcohol. And lewd comments are words. It’s bizarre that Weilun Soon treats these occurrences as if they are actually happening. The bottle does not appear to be alcohol because it really isn’t. In Soon’s account, appear is used here as if there may be alcohol in the bottle. You know, the way a cop presumes there is alcohol in the bottle on your dash right before he asks you to step out of the vehicle. But we are here talking about a bottle that doesn’t exist. There is no alcohol.

In discussing this story on Facebook earlier today, a friend said, “Do people know what make believe is anymore? There were safety measures the players turned off themselves. But it is disturbing that some people wanna gang rape others avatars. What kind of sick people want to do this in this imaginary land?! It is imaginary but disturbing.” I responded, “No more disturbing than shooting people in virtual worlds.”

She liked my comment so I did not elaborate my point. But I will here. Why is it weird to pretend to rape avatars in virtual space but unremarkable to shoot them? If a mother were to walk into her teenage son’s room and witness the boy “raping” an avatar, she would likely be very troubled. Yet mothers watch their teenage sons “killing” other players in hyper-realistic first-person shooter games and pay no mind. Isn’t killing as wrong as rape? But nobody is being killed or raped. Nothing wrong is happening. The only potential crimes here are thought-crimes—and only if we allow thoughts to enter into the realm of punishment. Sure, people think these are wrong thoughts. But that’s an opinion.

Another friend noted that Meta’s latest Quest 2 is highly immersive. The game “has multiple forward facing cameras to capture the environment you are in, augment it, and use it to create the experience. You put that headset on and it immediately starts to recorded and utilize what you would be looking at. Having Darth Vader ’stare’ you directly in your eyes (adjusted for height) can give you chills. Rollercoaster experiences can cause physical reactions.” I am reminded of the movie Brainstorm, where a research team, led by Christopher Walken, constructs a system that directly records and replays the sensory experiences, emotional feelings, and physiological reactions of a subject. Predictably, the military-industrial complex seeks control of the technology for military ends. One researcher, played by Louise Fletcher, records her own death from a heart attack. When the recording is played back, it produces a heart attack in the user.

“Obviously, you can take the headset off but I still have papers from when I was an undergraduate making the argument the Facebook would eventually generate an abundance of poor quality social capital that it would have an impact on ’disconnected’ life whether you wanted it to or not,” writes my Facebook friend. “And, well, here we are.” He continues, “The argument I made was that although discourse would increase, corroded networks of associations and the algorithms that utilize would make that distinction of online or offline irrelevant. Does this lend credence to that concept or something similar? Does there need to be a clear distinction similar to computer facilitated assault?”

These are useful observations and important questions. In my initial Facebook comments (which were only these: “It isn’t real. No one was sexually assaulted”), I wasn’t talking about the socially corrosive effects of virtual reality. I was talking about the absurdity of supposing virtual spaces and occurrences are actual. To be sure, people can become absorbed in a false world where they believe the things that are happening to them are actually happening to them.

We see this problem in religion. A religious man may believe he is possessed by a demon. But he is not really. His experience is that of a false consciousness. This is why it is important to help him understand that the entities supposed by by faith are not actual things. They are real to him because he believes they are real (the Thomas Theorem). We help him by telling him that his experiences are not real. We do not help him by joining him in his delusion. We also don’t regulate religious content or put warning labels on religious experience.

There are mentally ill people who believe the things happening in their head are really happening to them, or that they really are the thing they think they are, such as the embodiment of this or that spirit animal. Consider body dysmorphic disorder, in which a person perceives something about his body that cannot be seen by others. To expect others believe his claims is an attempt to break down the distinction between the real and the imaginary. That is the problem. It leads to horrors such as those I cover in my essay Disordering Bodies for Disordered Minds. For instance (true story), a person wants to have a smooth genital areas like the ones he imagines space aliens have, and opportunistic surgeons, rather than refer the deluded man to a psychiatrist (one who isn’t woke), they mutilate his genitalia. Now he has only a hole where his genitals used to be. This is not described as mutilation, but “affirmation.” Affirmative is also expected from those the man encounters who are expected to participate in his delusion.

Violence is the wrong word to describe virtual experiences

We cannot say this enough. What you imagine is happening to you may not be happening to you. If it is the virtual space created by a computer program, then it is not happening to you—at least not physically. And if you can’t be in a virtual space where rape and murder can only be imaginary without experiencing trauma, then how can you stand to watch horror movies, pornography, or read a graphic novel? A “rape” in the metaverse is not a crime because nobody is actually raped. Nor are you actually who you pretend to be online or in real life, even if your pretending is not intentional. You are lying or delusional. You need either to be called out or helped.

Is it the fault of the computer program that you are confused? If you are inclined to answer in the negative, that is not what Meta representative, Kristina Milian, told MIT Technology Review. She told them that users should have “a positive experience with safety tools that are easy to find—and it’s never a user’s fault if they don’t use all the features we offer.” She continued: “We will continue to improve our UI (user interface) and to better understand how people use our tools so that users are able to report things easily and reliably. Our goal is to make Horizon Worlds safe, and we are committed to doing that work.”

Deploying the word “safe” here evokes the woke notion of “safe spaces” on college campuses. These are not spaces safe from outside interference that would limit discourse, but the opposite: rules limiting discourse to keep people “safe” from ideas that might offend them. In both cases, the motive and effect is infantilization.

Moreover, trying to manipulate the public into believing these are spaces where actual things happen is part of the rot of trans-humanism. It functions to prepare populations for changing self and spaces—real selves and spaces—to align with the avatars we create (or are created for us) and the virtual spaces they inhabit. This is the real danger of this discourse—if it ever finds itself way into law and policy.

The researcher is not her avatar. No one was raped here. No one is actually killed in a virtual world. Ever. That people believe that they are raped or killed in virtual spaces—that’s a problem. We need to help people who have become confused about what is real and what is not. The Business Insider article is to helpful. It is an exercise in reification. The bigger problem is expecting us to agree with the deluded that they are what they think they are and that what they think they are experiencing—which cannot be real—is actually real. We mustn’t join them in their delusions. The majority needs to keep its collective head in actual space and time.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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