Ah yes, the Metaverse: everyone’s favorite love-to-hate buzzword that doesn’t really mean anything. Well, that’s only partly true. The Metaverse does have a definition but it’s not what smarmy marketing suits have been selling you and your kids for the past couple of years.
There are larger social implications at work that spread beyond “hey, this might be cool.” Remember that technology is often asking itself the wrong question. It often asks itself, “Can we do it?” The more important question is, “Should we do it?” While the Metaverse sits firmly in a realm of answering neither of these questions, it’s important to keep them in mind as we continue on our journey into what the Metaverse is and what it means for our kids.
Defining the Metaverse
The idea of the Metaverse has been around since Neal Stephenson coined the term in his book “Snow Crash” in 1992. His version of the Metaverse was as a speculative virtual reality successor to the internet that he envisioned would take over as the primary modality of communication between people.
How the Metaverse Works
The Metaverse is a true “virtual universe”. It’s a single, shared, immersive, persistent, virtual space where people experience life in ways they could not in the physical world. It’s worth noting that the Metaverse is still only an idea, not something that has been fully developed or executed on by any of the games/experiences/platforms that claim to be working towards that vision (no matter how diligently).
In modern gaming terms, the Metaverse also heavily involves User Generated Content (UGC), where players take time to create in-game content in the form of mini-games, structures, and/or objects. This UGC can either be directly monetized (Roblox’s Robux) or available for free (Fortnite, Dreams). It’s worth noting that Dreams isn’t considered a true Metaverse, but rather a “game universe” in which players create.
The Risks of the Metaverse
As with any experience that’s tied to being online, there is inherent risk to allowing your children to interact with strangers online.
- Chat moderation isn’t perfect: Inappropriate content can get flagged automatically in some instances in chat, but the rest of it requires human moderators that are inherently imperfect.
- Perfect content moderation is impossible: Protecting our children from everything inappropriate online isn’t reasonable, but content moderation usually helps to curb the worst of it. Unfortunately, there are still too many instances of inappropriate content being generated (and propagated) in places that children can and will access, whether that’s in VR Chat or Roblox.
- Children sharing Third Places with adults: The Third Place — a place outside of work/school and home — for children is often a playground, community house (like the YMCA), or a friend’s home. In the case of the Metaverse, this is a digital playground that is meant to be safe and secure for play and joy. Children sharing their Third Place with adults in an uncritical, ungoverned capacity is inherently dangerous.
- Grooming: This is a big issue that many online spaces are going to contend with where predators can (and will) use these Metaverse platforms to create content (and elicit interactions) that will lure children into inappropriate contact with an adult.
Notable Examples of “Metaverse” Games
Second Life: A virtual world created by Linden Lab in which users can create and customize their own avatars, explore virtual environments, and interact with each other.
VR Chat: A virtual reality social platform that allows users to meet and interact with each other in a variety of virtual environments.
Fortnite: A popular online multiplayer game that includes a virtual world called the “Island,” in which players can explore, build, and battle with each other.
Roblox: A game that allows players to play a wide variety of games, create games, and chat with others online. It combines gaming, social media, and social commerce.
Projects in Development
Project Sansar: A virtual reality platform created by Linden Lab (Second Life) that aims to provide a more realistic and immersive metaverse experience.
Horizon: A virtual reality metaverse created by Epic Games, the developers of Fortnite, which aims to provide a more realistic and interactive virtual reality experience.
Is the Metaverse Safe for Kids?
The short answer is no.
Regardless of the breadth of parental supervision, the current expression of the Metaverse is not a well-moderated or well-curated experience for children. Fortnite remains the only exception to that rule, as Fortnite is more of a digital playground that you can build fun things in. Epic has done exceptionally well in content moderation on their platform, so Fortnite is the safest of the options.
We cannot stress this enough to parents: do not under any circumstances let your children play Roblox. Ever. There are countless stories as to why Roblox is not safe for children. We acknowledge that the Trust & Safety division at Roblox is doing its best in changing things for the better, but the grim reality is that it’s too little and far too late. For all of the reasons (and many more) listed in the stories linked, including grooming and simulated sexual violence, Roblox is considered an absolute no-go in any of the EFG households (including mine).
Can the Metaverse be Safe for Kids?
More work needs to be done between developers and trust and safety agencies around the world. The World Economic Forum has an excellent primer on what they feel needs to happen in order for the Metaverse to be safe for everyone, including children.
What do you think? Sound off in the comments and let us know your thoughts!
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