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A Guide to Horizon Worlds

2022-06-23T08:27:01+00:00June 10th, 2022|

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It has never been more important to stay up to date with the latest advancements in the digital world. As headlines about virtual reality (VR) and the metaverse become more commonplace, one platform is beginning to rise in global prominence. Meta have recently released their virtual ‘social experience’ Horizon Worlds in the UK, with further plans to release in European countries this summer. But what exactly is Horizon Worlds? And how does it impact children and young people who are exploring digital spaces?

This guide will help you better understand the platform, learn about its risks, and find out how to talk to the young people in your care about this virtual world.

Image of Avatars in Horizon Worlds with the title 'Horizon Worlds' in the middle

It’s important to note that Horizon Worlds is meant to be exclusive to users who are 18 years of age or older. Despite this, there have been multiple reports of children accessing the platform through a parent or carer’s account. Remember – even if a child has their parent or carer’s permission, they will be freely interacting with other adults and could be exposed to age inappropriate content or situations. As Horizon Worlds is an 18+ platform, it does not have any active parental controls. Meta has said that it will be implementing further options for parents on their VR headsets and equipment, but these will require separate setup.

What is Horizon Worlds?

Horizon Worlds is a virtual social space, a current example of the concept of the metaverse, from Meta (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp’s parent company). It  encourages users to ‘bring their ideas to life’ within its consistently growing catalogue of virtual experiences created by the platform’s users for other users to enjoy. While it is free to join, it’s important to note that Horizon Worlds is only accessible through an Oculus Quest VR headset developed by Meta. The company are currently developing both web and mobile based versions of the platform.

Users are represented by cartoon like, legless avatars that move around a three-dimensional space, interacting with other avatars in the same area. They can meet up with friends, play digital games, explore different worlds, and socialise with others – without leaving the comfort of their home.

Horizon Worlds was released for users aged 18 and older in the UK on June 14th, 2022 with further plans for a European release this summer. It has been available in the US and Canada since December 2021.

3 Horizon Worlds Avatars

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality is a digitally created experience that completely immerses the user in a simulated world. For example, you could be climbing Mount Everest or duelling Darth Vader – all from your front room. VR is typically facilitated by handheld controllers and a headset worn directly over the eyes.

Find out more about virtual reality in our recent article.

Is Horizon Worlds the Metaverse?

Sort of – it’s a part of it! The Metaverse is a shared virtual space for users across the internet to access content, play games, purchase items, and build environments. Users are also able to interact with other users on certain platforms. While the metaverse may be commonly associated with virtual reality headsets, it may also incorporate other technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and blockchain.

To learn more about the metaverse and all of its components, check out our recent article.

What Can Users Do in Horizon Worlds?

The interactivity of Horizon Worlds is a big part of its appeal. Without leaving their homes, users can access an entirely different world, one where they can meet other people, explore new spaces, and create a virtual version of themselves. Features of the app include:

Users can edit their avatar with various options for body, face, hair, and clothing to express their virtual selves. This may or may not reflect their real appearance and/or age.

Users can move via their avatar, with the immersive nature of VR technology creating a sensation of ‘actually’ being there, and visit worlds created by other users.

Users can engage with other people’s avatars and objects in the world (e.g. using a blaster gun during games) while using voice chat for a more ‘real world’ experience.

Users can create and build their own worlds on the platform and allow other users to come explore those worlds. Groups can form around these worlds to reflect special interests.

Horizon Worlds scene of a 'plaza'

This is a highly social platform. Users are encouraged to interact with strangers through conversation, form groups (called ‘parties’), add other users as their ‘friends’, and even physically interact with other avatars. They can also visit worlds created by other users and experience a variety of different activities there, such as playing team laser tag, arena shooting games, attending comedy nights, and DJing at a club. 

Reports of sexual harassment on Horizon Worlds

There have been several reported incidents of users experiencing sexual harassment while using the platform. We feel it is important to include these in this guide to Horizon Worlds, but please note the following contains details of online sexual harassment and abuse that some readers might find upsetting.

  • In November 2021, a user reported being groped on the platform during the beta testing. Meta’s response was that the user should have used an existing tool called ‘Safe Zone’– a protective bubble users can activate where no one can ‘virtually’ touch them, talk to them, or interact in any way until the Safe Zone is lifted.

  • In December 2021, a metaverse researcher reported that her character on Horizon Worlds was ‘virtually’ raped. This occurred when she was surrounded by three to four male avatars who verbally and sexually harassed her and took photos of her avatar.

  • In May 2022, a researcher from SumOfUs was led to a private room at a party where she was ‘virtually’ raped by a user while other users observed.

It’s important to note that when another avatar touches a user’s avatar in Horizon Worlds, the user’s physical hand controllers vibrate. This is done to create a more immersive experience. However, it does mean any user can ‘feel’ unwanted or unwelcome contact from others. This could be traumatic, especially if paired with verbal harassment via voice chat.

Safety Features

In response to these reports of online sexual harassment, several features have been added to existing safety measures on Horizon Worlds (such as an avatar’s hands disappearing when close to another avatar). These have been created to help all users curate their own safest Horizon Worlds experience and are optional to everyone.

  • Personal Boundarya radius of personal space to an avatar, which prevents others from coming close to them. Users can choose to turn it off completely, turn it on for non-friends online, or leave it on for all experiences and interactions.

  • Garble Voices – a voice mode that turns voice chat from any nearby non-friends into ‘unintelligible, friendly sounds’ that will make users feel safer. An icon will appear above display names to indicate to others that ‘garble’ is being used.

  • Safe Zonea personal, protective bubble users can activate where no one can ‘virtually’ touch them, talk to them, or interact in any way until Safe Zone is lifted. Users can also report, block, and mute others from within in the Safe Zone.

  • Horizon Home – a virtual space only available to a user’s added friends that will not be accessible to non-friends. The user will be able to host small parties or gatherings that will allow them to interact with their friends in a safe place.

Take a look at our Horizon Worlds Safety Card with the young people in your care. It takes a look at blocking, reporting using the Safe Zone, and applying the Personal Boundary setting while on the platform.

Download Safety Card

Young People and Horizon Worlds

As previously mentioned, Horizon Worlds is intended to be for people aged 18 and above. However, our researchers have found multiple reviews stating that high numbers of younger children are present on the platform, despite the age rating.

The Meta Quest VR headset allows users aged 13 and above to create an account with parental permission. However, if a parent’s Facebook or Oculus account is connected to the headset, under 18s can use that to access Horizon Worlds.

A report by The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) stated that children were present in various platforms including Horizon Worlds, “some that were as young as 6”.

It is worth mentioning that age restrictions are not heavily moderated on Meta. It would only be a matter of creating a fake Facebook account (needed to create an Oculus account) with a false birthday that makes the user 18-years-old or over to access Horizon Worlds.

Meta has announced their plans to implement parental controls on future Quest VR headsets and applications. These controls include checking screentime, receiving alerts, and setting approval requests for purchases. However – as Horizon Worlds is explicitly meant for users aged 18 and older and is not meant to be used by children or young people, it is unlikely to have its own parental control system until the age limit includes younger age groups.

What’s the appeal of Horizon Worlds to Young People?

The appeal of Horizon Worlds comes from the ability to interact with others in a virtual, creatable setting. For young people, they may think the platform provides an easy, accessible, fun way to meet others. This is especially attractive for young people who feel isolated due to factors like real-life bullying, physical limitations or illnesses, mental health issues, or residual emotions from the pandemic and lockdowns.

Fun, escapism, and curiosity are all reasons a young person may want to explore this virtual world. There is a lot of hype surrounding the metaverse, with Ofcom reporting it as the next possible ‘generation of the internet’, with young people primed to be its most avid users. The playful visuals of Horizon Worlds may also remind young people of other games they enjoy. This familiarity could cause a false sense of security, especially when interacting with strangers.

Even the negative press surrounding the platform could result in a young person being tempted to go ‘check it out’ for themselves, either alone or with friends, after hearing that it’s risky, unpredictable, and controversial.

It’s worth noting that young people may be experiencing curiosity and thoughts towards different sexual relationships. They may think Horizon Worlds this is a virtual space where they can ‘safely’ learn about or act on certain feelings or desires, especially if they don’t feel they have somewhere or someone else to discuss this with especially if they don’t feel they have somewhere or someone else to go to have those types of conversations.

What are the Risks of Horizon Worlds to Children and Young People?

Children and young people should not and are not meant to be using Horizon Worlds due to the age restrictions. However, as there are multiple ways children and young people might access this platform (and reports that they are) parents and carers should be aware of the risks that could impact those in their care.

  • Lack of parental controls. Since Horizon Worlds is aimed at 18+ users, there are no parental controls on the platform despite reports of underage users. Horizon Worlds relies on users self-moderating and using muting, blocking, and reporting tools.

  • Avenue for grooming and abuse. The NSPCC have voiced concerns that the sensory and immersive aspects of VR and the interactive nature of platforms could open new means for abuse to be perpetuated.

  • Online sexual harassment and abuse. Although Meta are implementing measures to help reduce these incidents, no measure will ever be fool proof. Even one incident of sexual harassment or abusive content could have a negative impact on a child or young person.

  • Sharing personal information. Horizon Worlds profiles (which include username and mutual Oculus friends) are public to other users. It is important to ensure that usernames don’t reveal personal or identifiable information.

  • Solo experience. Unless users choose to cast their headset’s view to an external screen, their experiences remain solitary. This means that parents and carers cannot easily monitor, watch, or recognise what a child is doing when using a headset.

  • Exposure to inappropriate content. Even if a comment or action is not directed at the child or young person using the platform, witnessing others interacting in a sexual or abusive way could still be harmful or upsetting.

A researcher of online harassment found that when virtual reality is immersive and real, the toxic behaviour occurring in it is real too. VR spaces are designed to be immersive and to trick the user into believing they are there physically. 

Horizon Worlds scene of a basketball court

Top Tips

  • Start the conversation. Talk to the child or young person in your care about virtual reality and the metaverse. We recommend you don’t mention Horizon Worlds by name and only discuss this particular platform if they bring it up first.

  • Ask open-ended questions, such as “What do you think about the metaverse? Could you explain to me what exactly it is? What games are there to play on there?” By framing it as a casual conversation in which you’re asking for explanations, not only will their ‘guard’ be lowered but you’ll get a sense of if, and what, they may have explored any digital VR worlds.

  • Don’t assume. Just because you don’t have an Oculus (recently renamed The Meta Quest) or other VR equipment in your home doesn’t mean that they haven’t used it. They could have experienced virtual reality or the metaverse elsewhere, such as a friend’s house or through another online platform.

  • Don’t panic! Even if you discover your child or young person has been on Horizon Worlds, it doesn’t mean they have definitely been exposed to harmful content or experienced online sexual harassment. You can ask them what they’ve experienced, but remember – they may not feel comfortable sharing that with you at this time.

  • Be supportive. Remain calm and give your child or young person space and time to speak about anything they’ve experienced on Horizon Worlds or any other part of their online experiences. Remind them they can talk to you about anything, and check they know who their Trusted Adults.

  • Report inappropriate content. Make sure any young person knows exactly how to use Horizon World’s reporting function by using our Safety Card with them. This will empower them to keep themselves and others safer on the platform.

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