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Meta’s flagship VR playground changes policy to allow 18+ content

An attendee wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset tries out a VR application on the Meta Platforms Inc booth at the Viva Technology conference dedicated to innovation and start-ups, at Porte de Versailles exhibition centre in Paris, France , on June 16, 2022. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

An attendee wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset tries out a VR application on the Meta Platforms Inc booth at the Viva Technology conference dedicated to innovation and start-ups, at Porte de Versailles exhibition centre in Paris, France , on June 16, 2022. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

Published Jul 26, 2022

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Johannesburg - Horizon Worlds is the Virtual Reality platform serving as Meta’s flagship towards the faraway dream of a metaverse, where all our digital interactions happen through interchangeable things and places controlled by a few co-operating corporations.

The platform functions as a place where users can interact with one another as avatars in virtual environments. Users can design their own environments – from things as mundane as an office to exotic fantasy areas.

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While there are surely plans to expand it in the creative and exotic directions akin to existing virtual reality platforms, Meta’s focus with Horizon Worlds seems to be making virtual meeting and co-operation more immersive and natural-feeling.

This would see users move away from video tools like Zoom and towards a VR space. Here, users could sit around a virtual meeting table with their avatars, and proximity audio would allow users to whisper side conversations to those next to them.

The environment and avatar modelling tools are pretty limited compared to what has been shown to be possible with platforms like VRChat. Models are legless and have comparably few customisation options. Environment and game-creation tools are also basic for now.

That said, Meta’s Zuckerberg has showcased his ambitious long-term goals for immersive virtual human communication in all recent marketing and interviews. This would be achieved by incorporating facial expressions and gestures alongside more powerful model and environment creation tools.

It’s clear that Meta is taking a slower and more methodical approach to expanding Horison World’s features. This makes sense – creative user-generated content is the core of any sustainably fun or interesting platform, but also creates a moderation nightmare. When you have the ability to create and use detailed 3D models or create intricate interactable environments, there will inevitably be users creating offensive, aversive or just plain illegal content.

Meta has had a taste of this moderation mess with Horizon Worlds, not that it is anything new for the company that has had to moderate the churning depths of Facebook for almost two decades.

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It had to implement a limit on how close we can get to other people’s avatars after complaints of people intruding on virtual personal space or simulating sexual harassment.

Previously, any content that was sexually suggestive, depicted violence or regulated goods and activities (like cannabis and alcohol) was prohibited. Now, these types of content will be allowed as long as it is marked as “mature”, which will restrict it to users aged 18 and up.

The new regulations allow “intense or excessively violent fictional content” that could “shock or disgust users” or “sexually suggestive content”, but not real-life violence, nudity or explicitly provocative content. It will allow virtual spaces that promote legal but age-restricted activities like alcohol and gambling but not “illegal drugs or abuse of prescription drugs”.

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The regulations will undoubtedly run into the blurry line issues that all international online moderation efforts do. What constitutes as legal varies within the US alone, nevermind the rest of the world. Similarly, exactly where to draw lines between what is explicitly sexual will always be contentious and vague.

For the vision of a metaverse where all our digital interactions take place in corporate-controlled space to come to fruition, technocrats will have to find a way to reconcile their responsibility for the things that happen on their platforms with the chaotic intents of users.

The past two decades of the internet have shown that the anonymous mass of digital humanity has boundless disdain for oversight, restriction and fragile prudishness. People will insist on pushing any boundaries imposed upon them, and give as much trouble as possible to the technocrats trying to police blurry and complex human behaviour with cookie-cutter regulations woven by the soulless hands of corporate lawyers.

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One direction would be to abdicate almost all responsibility. However, this seems untenable considering the trend of public opinion wanting platforms to act as stern gatekeepers of what people can say and post, rather than individual users curating and filtering content according to their own taste.

The old Wild West of the internet was composed of users who were native to the internet and partial to its absurd and unrestricted nature. As the digital world has expanded to almost forcibly consume entire populations, a vocal reactionary sentiment has demanded that online platforms remove content they deem objectionable.

Another direction alluded to would be to give maximal agency to users to filter out content they don’t want and choose their optimal experience, rather than demand that platforms obliterate anything that vocal parties dislike.

This is the option which makes the most sense to preserve individual freedom and maximise creative opportunity. It is also the only option which makes sense considering the incredible scale of the task of moderating the content and interactions of potentially millions of people daily.

Horison Worlds has features in this vein, such as making other people’s voices unintelligible if they are not on our friends list. However, it seems Meta will have to do a lot more to placate the tireless critics of the internet.

People have issued complaints equating users coming too close to one another with sexual harassment, highlighting the divide between those used to the inherent silliness of virtual interaction and those for whom a platform can only be “safe” and acceptable if it imposes authoritarian regulation that matches their specific personal feelings.

It will be interesting to see how Meta tackles the tension between fuddy-duddies who insist on a paternalistic police force for the internet, and the chaotic human urge to do anything provocative just to spite them.

Meta and its tech giant contemporaries will have to find some kind of compromise, as its platform will need to be amicable enough for use by the general public but also allow enough creative freedom to be sustainably interesting.

IOL Tech

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