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VR and MMOs vs. the “Metaverse”

Misconceptions and buzz about the metaverse are distracting from the need for action on existing technologies that already pose harm to kids.

An adult with a laptop showing a child how to use a VR headset

Everyone seems to be talking about "the metaverse," but people are uncertain what it actually is, or if it even really exists. Tech and media companies like Meta, formerly known as Facebook, broadly apply the term "metaverse" to anything related to virtual reality (VR) technology and massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), but it is unclear how the "metaverse" differs from those existing technologies, if at all. This ambiguity confuses people's understanding of what technologies already exist, what they may become, and what problems they already cause.

Those problems directly impact kids. According to our latest research, 17% of children age 8 to 18 report having a VR headset, and about one in five tweens (22%) and one in four teens (27%) have ever tried virtual reality. But risks to kids in the metaverse range from physical dangers to privacy violations and manipulation, and there are still more potential harms that must be explored. Our new report on privacy in VR reveals that these devices are collecting and monetizing the incredibly sensitive data they collect, and not a single VR headset we reviewed receives our recommendation for privacy and security.

Companies like Meta often talk about how the metaverse is coming, but much of the buzz around the metaverse can really be boiled down to marketing. VR and MMOs are two distinct types of technology that have existed for years. As these existing technologies become a bigger part of people's lives, it's important to see through misleading marketing messages. The government must be able to understand these technologies to pass sufficiently targeted laws and regulations. And at the same time, parents and caregivers need some clear guidance on these technologies to effectively safeguard their children.

Virtual Reality vs. Online Gaming

VR and MMO technologies have existed for quite a while now, but are increasingly popular. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed children to spend more time inside using screens to continue their classes and maintain social connections, with many turning to playing MMOs.

VR uses specialized devices such as headsets to provide users with an immersive viewing experience by placing an enclosed screen directly in front of the wearer's eyes. Meta has long been a dominant player in the VR headset market. In 2021, Meta shipped a record-setting 21.2 million headsets, with its new Meta Quest 2 headset making up 78% of the total VR hardware market.

While VR offers exciting learning and playing opportunities for kids, it comes with harms and risks for young users. More attention and research is needed to better understand these concerns. We already know that prolonged use of VR headsets causes physical problems that include eye strain, nausea, and headaches. Children can be exposed to misinformation and manipulation, sexual content and abuse, and psychological risks. For adults, the enclosed screens make it difficult to supervise the content their children view when using VR headsets.

MMOs, on the other hand, are online games like Roblox or Fortnite played on computers, gaming consoles, and mobile devices where users interact with large numbers of other people in a shared virtual world. Roblox, one of the most popular MMOs among children, was founded in 2006 and has recently seen unprecedented growth, averaging 58.5 million daily active users in July 2022. Company representatives claim that three-fourths of all kids in the United States from 9 to 12 years old use Roblox.

Many children use MMOs to interact with others online. That can clearly be a lot of fun, but it can also be unsafe because of the bullying, harassment, bigotry, and abuse that children often face on these platforms. MMO companies could address these problems by setting and enforcing rules for proper user behavior, but instead these companies mostly let players run wild.

MMOs, including Roblox, have only recently begun integrating VR technology, and so far there is no publicly available data analyzing how many players actually use this VR functionality. In 2021, Meta launched its first VR MMO, "Horizon Worlds," and by February 2022 it had reached 300,000 monthly users. Horizon Worlds is officially available only to players age 18 and over, but the game is full of children who easily circumvent the age requirements by using their parents' accounts or lying about their age.

How does VR or online gaming differ from the metaverse?

So what, then, is "the metaverse"? The author Neal Stephenson first coined the term "metaverse" in his 1992 novel Snow Crash to describe a hypothetical possibility where the internet was fully replaced by a singular interconnected virtual world that users could access using special headsets. This imaginative concept has seen renewed success in recent movies, including Space Jam: A New Legacy and Ready Player One.

In reality, the internet hasn't been replaced by a singular all-encompassing virtual world, and never will be.

In 2021, Facebook rebranded itself as "Meta" and began using the metaverse concept extensively in its marketing. Meta's extensive use of the word "metaverse" is largely responsible for the term's newfound popular use, but the company is vague and noncommittal about what it believes the term actually means. Meta describes the metaverse as "a set of interconnected digital spaces that lets you do things you can't do in the physical world." This description could apply to a fullyrealized VR world, but it could also be used to describe the existing internet, which has already been made up of interconnected digital spaces called "websites" since 1993. Without any notable changes to its VR headset products, Facebook was able to make record sales in 2021 based on the promise of a metaverse that even Meta concedes is "still a ways off."

The promise of innovation in the so-called metaverse is a distraction from the fact that we already increasingly live in a highly connected technological world. Online multiplayer games and social media platforms can provide children with powerful tools to socialize, learn, and communicate with friends and family, but in many cases these platforms are allowed to do more harm than good. Informed parental supervision, increased platform moderation, and targeted government oversight and enforcement are all necessary to ensure that children are as safe as possible when they navigate these platforms and technologies. A good first step is to better understand what these newer technologies are—and are not.

Irene Ly, policy counsel at Common Sense, contributed to this article.

Brendan Brown

Brendan Brown is currently a third year law student at Villanova University, with a focus on technology, privacy, and media issues. Brendan completed a law and policy internship with Common Sense during summer 2022.