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In Virtual Reality, Can You Break the Law?

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By George Khoury, Esq. on November 25, 2016 5:57 AM

As virtual reality technology advances, like with every new technology, the law frequently needs time to play catch-up. We have already seen the law extend to cover credible criminal threats made online. However, when it comes to virtual reality (VR), lawmakers may be teetering upon an uncertain slippery slope. 

Recently, a virtual reality user reported having her VR character (avatar) repeatedly molested by another VR user inside the same VR world. Despite the lack of actual physical contact, the violated user explained that she felt many of the same emotions as she did when she was groped in real life, and to make matters worse, there was nothing she could do to stop the virtual attack, short of signing off from the game. In response to the VR sexual assault, the game-makers created a user command that allows a user to create a personal bubble that removes all other live players nearby.

The Problem With Real Life Laws in Virtual Reality

The VR sexual assault is an upsetting incident that, thankfully, has prompted a larger discussion about whether law and order should apply in the VR world. Although game makers are concerned with creating inclusive worlds that everyone and anyone can enjoy, real life consequences for in-game actions seems to be an extreme response. Many unanswered questions abound as to whether game designers and/or individuals should have any liability for actions taken in virtual worlds. 

Generally, since video games are made to entertain users through fantasy, allowing real life laws to impact gameplay feels wrong. However, when you consider that virtual sexual violence is possible, the discussion, and feeling, changes.

A recently created play, The Nether, highlights this problem by depicting a VR world where adult users perpetrate sexual violence against children. As disgusting as this sounds, there are already laws in place that would prevent this, as even simulated child pornography is illegal. Additionally, as online threats are also considered criminal, it really doesn't seem too far off to criminalize virtual sexual violence against live VR users (as opposed to computer generated characters).

California's Anti-Harassment Law Might Apply

California has some of the broadest anti-harassment laws in the country, and among them is Penal Code 653m, which arguably could make a virtual sexual assault a misdemeanor. Section 653m makes it illegal to harass or annoy someone via electronic communications.

However, whether this section would apply to a VR sexual assault, or other harassing conduct in a VR world is likely a question the courts will need to decide, unless lawmakers act to make a more specific law prohibiting the conduct.

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