While playing a game in the Metaverse, a teen girl’s avatar was attacked and sexually assaulted by a group of other avatars. Now, police in the United Kingdom are investigating the case and considering criminal charges.

Should people be held accountable for the crimes they commit in virtual reality?

An Assault in Virtual Reality

While many details of this case haven’t been released due to the ongoing investigation and age of the victim, here is what we know as reported by The Daily Mail.

A 16-year-old girl in the United Kingdom put on a set of immersive virtual reality goggles, which block out all visuals except for what is on the screen. In her hands, the girl held a device to control her avatar. The hand-held device contributed to the immersive feeling of the virtual world by vibrating as her avatar moved through the world. For example, the handset would send vibrations if the avatar fell or bumped into a wall.

We don’t know what game she was playing, but the teen girl was in the Metaverse, which is described as a collective virtual shared space.

As she was moving around the virtual universe, a group of avatars controlled by real-world players approached her. According to her report, the group of avatars then attacked and gang-raped her avatar.

Is VR Crime a Real Crime?

The 16-year-old reported what happened to local authorities, and police are now investigating the case.

While the teen did not experience any physical injuries from the virtual attack, officials say she experienced the same psychological and emotional trauma as someone who has been raped in the real world.

U.K. Home Secretary James Cleverly told LBC about the incident. “And we’re talking about a child here, and a child has gone through sexual trauma. It will have had a very significant psychological effect and we should be very, very careful about being dismissive of this.”

Authorities are taking the case more seriously because of the age of the victim. They believe a teen may have more difficulty distinguishing between what’s real and what is make-believe.

This case isn’t the first time someone has come forward to say they were sexually assaulted in virtual reality, but it appears to be the first time police have been involved.

Related: If You’re Arrested for a Crime, Immediately Take These 6 Steps

The History of Virtual Reality Sexual Assault

The topic of sexual assault in virtual reality goes as far back as 1993, when Julian Dibbell wrote an article that said people sexually assaulted in a virtual community felt emotions similar to those of victims of physical rape.

Since then, there have been multiple reported accounts of avatars being raped in virtual reality while game-players watched from the real world.

In 2016, the New York Post published a woman’s account of being sexually assaulted while playing the game, QuiVr. The woman said the avatar, “chased me around, making grabbing and pinching motions near my chest. Emboldened, he even shoved his hand toward my virtual crotch and began rubbing.”

Recently, more accounts of sexual assault in virtual reality have come from the game Horizon Worlds, run by Facebook owner Meta. A researcher studying user behavior said her avatar was raped roughly an hour into her first session. Another researcher said within 60 seconds after joining the game, three to four male-looking avatars gang-raped her avatar.

So, is this activity illegal?

Problems with the Case

Current legislation would make it difficult to charge individuals for their actions in virtual reality for a few reasons.

  1. Avatars have not been established as either legal or natural persons so they cannot be charged. No legislation says a person is responsible for the action of their avatar.
  2. The language of most statutes would make it difficult for VR criminal activity to meet the standards of the law. For example in the U.K., sexual assault is defined as “the physical touching of another person sexually without their consent.” In a virtual reality assault, there is no physical touching.
  3. Virtual reality does not exist in a specific physical space so it would be difficult to assign a jurisdiction for where to hear the case.

Currently, it looks unlikely that individuals will be held legally accountable for the actions of their avatars in virtual reality, but it could change. As the Metaverse grows and virtual reality is used by more and more people, legislators may take up this issue and draft laws to direct the handling of future VR crimes.

We will also have to wait and see if individuals can file civil personal injury lawsuits in cases where the victims of VR crime feel they have endured pain and suffering or emotional damages.

Related: What’s the Difference Between a Civil and Criminal Case? 

Attorneys Looking to the Future

Laws are always evolving to meet the new demands of a changing world. If you have a question about a pending civil or criminal case, discuss the details with an experienced attorney. Talk to attorney TJ Grimaldi today. Request your consultation or call 813-226-1023.

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