Can the metaverse be an inclusive and safe space for women?
Experience strategists Tripti Gawankar and Madison Hubbard recently joined students from the University of Westminster and other colleagues at a Hackathon to explore how the metaverse impacts women now and in the future. Here they discuss some of the key challenges they uncovered and what’s next in making the metaverse more inclusive…
For this year’s International Women’s Day, Zone hosted a Hackathon addressing the topic Women in the Metaverse. As experience strategists, we are inherently curious creatures and were tremendously intrigued by the topic so we didn’t hesitate to sign-up, excited to explore this new and uncertain world.
We had never taken part in hackathon before so our only expectation was based on pop-culture — we imagined being in a room with a bunch of extremely smart guys typing away at their keyboards fuelled by energy drinks and fast food, oblivious to the passage of time. This was a big reminder that we’re all riddled by biases and preconceived notions because the Women in the Metaverse Hackathon was in fact an inclusive day of learning and broadening our minds towards what could be a new reality for all of us.
Introduction to the Metaverse
The next uncharted territory was the metaverse itself. Firstly, what is the metaverse? How is it different than virtual reality? The metaverse is a computer-generated world in which users can interact with each other — it is virtual reality (VR). The day began with a fireside chat amongst metaverse experts who quickly corrected the narrative by reminding us that there are no experts on this topic, just pioneers.
One of the themes discussed was around the similarity between the internet as we know it and the metaverse. When the internet was new, everyone was equally amazed by it. There were proponents and opponents and now we have reached a place where one cannot function without it. The expectation is that what the internet feels like today will be the Metaverse tomorrow.
The next theme discussed was how marketers can effectively use the metaverse and how they need to create a compelling experience that gives consumers a reason to go into virtual reality. The story must seamlessly flow from the metaverse into reality. Today, companies are trying to solve real world problems with a digital solution in the form of VR, however, the potential of the metaverse is much broader than that. Additionally, due to Facebook’s rebranding to Meta, there is a sudden burst of interest in the metaverse. The good news is that many organisations are freeing up budgets to invest in creative tech but it’s hard to assess the impact and design KPIs around something that is so new and uncertain.
When we started discussing the core topic for the day — Women in the Metaverse — we realised that current social issues are already spilling into virtual worlds. Designing the metaverse must seek to ensure that we don’t carry the legacy problems of lack of inclusion, safety concerns, and patriarchy into our virtual worlds. We heard how legal experts are already chomping at the bit to gain more business due to the potential legal risks and lawsuits coming out of the metaverse.
The speaker series ended on a positive note — that virtual reality should be designed to enhance our real world experiences rather than replicating or replacing them.
Following the insightful sessions with the metaverse pioneers, we broke out into groups to discuss the challenges that women could potentially face in the metaverse and hypothetical solutions. We had a cross-functional group of computer science students from the University of Westminster alongside Zone’s own experience strategists, technology directors and architects.
- Safety: There are many reports already of virtual groping in the metaverse and we believe these incidents might escalate if these virtual worlds are not designed more thoughtfully.
- Lack of respect: Many women have to work twice as hard to earn the same respect as their male peers and this might continue into virtual worlds.
- Hardware design: Just like phones are too big for women’s hands or for their trouser pockets, VR headsets have been primarily designed for men which means they are not only physically incompatible but physiologically unsuitable for women. Many women have complained of nausea and dizziness after using VR headsets.
- Self-image concerns and body dysmorphia: What fashion magazines were in 90s, VR avatars could be in the future. Just like video games, in which female characters are hyper-sexualised, VR avatars for women could present similar issues which would result in mental health concerns for women.
- Boy’s club: As the birth of VR comes largely from the video game industry, which is historically male dominated, there is a huge risk that these legacies would spill into the metaverse making it another non-inclusive boy’s club.
Clearly some of the challenges we see are mere extensions of real-world issues into the metaverse which means that we have the benefit of hindsight while designing our virtual worlds.
We entered the metaverse because the door looked enticing but there is so much more to be discovered that we’ve not yet scratched the surface. Even though our hackathon only looked into some of the challenges faced by women in the metaverse, we know there is huge potential in how organisations can benefit from leveraging virtual reality. We’re therefore planning another hackathon later this month where we’ll explore this further and we’re excited to share our learnings in a follow-up blog. Stay tuned!