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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Meta-perverse: on the inherent misogyny of the technology and gaming industry

CW: misogyny, sexual harassment 

Meta has announced the rolling out of a “personal boundary tool”, prohibiting avatars from coming within nearly four-feet of one another in its Horizon virtual reality experiences. Avatars will now be immobilised upon approach and have to “extend their arms to be able to high-five or fist bump.” This follows reports of harassment from multiple female beta testers of the game being groped by strangers in these Horizon Worlds. Until now, Meta had responded with casual victim-blaming, telling female testers that they should have activated the “Safe Zone” tool if they felt threatened.

It is unsurprising that sexual harassment has made its way from reality into the metaverse. Last summer Ubisoft, maker of top games like Assassin’s Creed, faced allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. Similarly, Riot Games, maker of League of Legends was accused of sexist culture in 2018, leading to a company walkout in 2019 and class-action lawsuits for gender discrimination. Most recently, Activation Blizzard, creator of popular franchises like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, was sued by the State of California for discrimination, sexual harassment and assault of women in the workplace. The case was almost immediately settled with an $18 million payout, however as seen by the inappropriacy in the metaverse, perversity remains at the core of the gaming industry. 

Documentary-drama The Social Dilemma, brought to Netflix late last year sought to enlighten viewers of the issues that social platforms, including Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, entail. Attracting a swarming volume of 38 million views within the first 28 days of release, the exposé film revealed shock-statistics such as an 151% increase in female preteen suicide as a result of social media usage. However, this docudrama only grazed the surface of gender issues cultivated by social media and incited no retrospection from Meta to act in protection of their female users. 

We should recall that Meta, until recently known as Facebook, was originally birthed ‘Facemash’; a tool that Mark Zuckerberg created for male students to rate the attractiveness of their female classmates. The nonce word, punning on words ‘face’ and ‘smash,’ not only correlated appearances with female worth, but also advocated sexual violence.  As the company evolved into Facebook, these values were not abandoned, only amplified. Women reported being sent explicit, offensive, insulting or graphic messages and images on the platform, or having their own private photos shared without consent. Conducted in 2019, The Survation poll revealed 29% of women experienced sexual harassment on the platform and of those that reported this, 52% were ignored or told that there had not been a breach of community guidelines. Despite voicing intent to take action, the victim-blaming of female beta testers in the metaverse only echoes Facebook’s inherent misogyny that, unlike their re-brand, has not been resolved. 

Conveniently, Meta’s positively impactful action to combat harassment after decades of ignorance, comes at a time when such is also needed in its market evaluation. Only a few days prior to this announcement, Meta made history as having the biggest single-day drop in market value the US stock market has ever seen. This followed a disgracefully bad earnings report, with more than $250 billion wiped off Meta’s market value and shares plunging 27%. 

An anti-misogyny stance is therefore opportunely for Meta. In showcasing concern for its female players through setting boundaries, Meta outshines its competitors who, in light of the same issues, have remained torpid. Yet, is removing physical contact entirely the right move for combating the issue, when it addresses symptoms rather than the cause? Though the raising of one’s hand to initiate a high five or fist bump is didactic of consent; it is only consent on a very small scale. Prohibiting physical contact entirely not only creates a false reality that forces us to ignore women’s impossibility of setting “personal boundaries” in real life, but also fails to penalise the excess of inappropriate sexual desire directed at female players. Instead, we are left with a new universe in which ill-breeding thoughts are still housed, and perverse individuals remain mobile. The physical boundary set does not censor verbal harassment that can still occur in the game’s hangout spaces and messaging features, leaving women as equally exposed to emotional abuse as they are in Meta’s other channels. 

Meta has too soon proved that it is a textile cut from the same misogynistic cloth as its former self and the industry in which it exists. Instead of rectifying the misogyny concerns of the industry at large, like the window that segregates a child from the candy store, by erecting this four-feet parameter, it has only made men lust over women more. 

Image: julientromeur / Public Domain Certification via pixabay

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