Ethicist and researcher Lucy Sparrow further argues for the need for a “community manager” approach to moderation, whereby some moderators are tasked not just with quietly managing content behind the scenes, but with actively cultivating the wider community of players. I’ll echo that call. Moderation is vital, and it is more than being punitive.
It is important to note that these strategies must be employed together. Tools at the level of the individual only work in conjunction with effective oversight. A techno-libertarian approach that suggests all the user needs is a “block” tool is merely going to re-create the layers of hell that already exist on social media.
Virtual Reality Is Reality, Act Accordingly
Existing laws may already apply to metaverse spaces. What’s vital is recognizing that online interactions are real and meaningful. Stalking in VR should be treated like stalking in the physical world; so should sexual harassment. While law enforcement rarely has any interest in genuinely helping people, this doesn’t mean that the companies in charge of various metaverse spaces have no responsibility to their users. Thus, even if a potentially illegal act is not referred to the police, it should still be grounds for severe sanction—perhaps through a watchlist shared across all virtual spaces by a trusted third party, like an ethical collaborative.
Similarly, though the legal landscape remains globally divided on this question, we need to nip any implementation of gambling mechanics in the bud.
The use of microtransactions in many games can be easily converted into gambling via systems like lootboxes, and platforms like VRChat already have a lucrative secondary market for avatars, costumes, and other digital assets. For the moment, it’s proving to be a mostly friendly and lucrative space for digital artists. In the hands of a corporation, it could turn into a casino. Existing laws around gambling, such as restrictions against selling to children or confinement of gambling mechanics to narrowly circumscribed digital spaces, could theoretically be used to stop this before it starts. There is even scope for updating or rewriting the Interstate Wire Act for the 21st century.
Many gaming studios insist that the virtual nature of the transactions, combined with the fact that the “payouts” are always digital items rather than real currency, distinguishes them from “real” gambling. There’s a reason for this: most existing restrictions on gambling in the US turn on questions of whether the stakes have “real value.” But we must broaden our understanding of reality to include these mechanisms, because virtual goods are undeniably valuable. And if VR ever does become a bigger part of our lives—as big as the internet already is—then asseverations about digital goods not having value will look even more dangerously antiquated than they already do.
Just Say No to Crypto
The most obvious source of corruption in metaverse spaces right now is the risk posed by NFTs and cryptocurrency. In recent months, a number of Ponzi schemes and other scams built around NFT properties involved the creation of video games and virtual worlds, and many people remain eager to shoehorn NFTs into online gaming with word salad promises of value for ordinary gamers.
While the ongoing crypto crash may solve this problem, securing a viable future for virtual reality means ensuring that its early adopters are not scammed into losing their life savings. For some, the advent of the metaverse is nothing more than yet another opportunity to hawk various crypto offerings. But that would be poisonous to this young garden of creativity. It would not only be stultifying to that innovative spirit, but it would also—like the gambling mechanics I’ve already inveighed against—create and nurture a predatory environment for users.