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  • Victoria Maamari

Virtual reality crimes: Are they real and can they be prosecuted?

TW: Descriptions of Sexual Violence

Many people seem to want to escape actual reality by partaking in virtual reality games, devices and interactions. One can put on a virtual reality headset and enter into a different world, getting an immersive experience where they can walk around, hear their surroundings, and actually interact with other people in the virtual world. However, just because the worlds are virtual does not mean that real-world problems, such as crime, do not find their way into virtual reality.  

Though it seems like virtual reality is a new invention, it has actually been around for quite some time. The technology dates back to 1968 when the first semblance of virtual reality was created. However, it was not until 2010 that virtual reality software became more available to consumers. Most recently, in 2024, Apple came out with its version of a virtual reality headset, cementing it in our society for years to come. 

As with most things, as virtual reality gets more and more popular, problems start to arise. For example, what happens if a crime gets committed in virtual reality? Is it a real crime? And if so, can it be prosecuted? In 2021, Nina Jane Patel, a virtual reality user, was sexually assaulted by three male avatars while a fourth one took pictures of the attack. Patel recalls her body physically responding and feeling very uncomfortable. In hopes of sharing her story and raising awareness of what happened to her, Nina posted about her attack on social media. However, she was shocked at the hate she received, and the disregard people had for crimes in virtual reality. More recently in the United Kingdom, a young girl under the age of 16 was raped in virtual reality by a group of adult men. She reports having significant physiological trauma from the incident as if it happened in real life. The young girl’s attack is the first to be investigated by authorities in the UK, but as law enforcement quickly noticed, it is much harder to investigate crimes that happen in a virtual world.  

These attacks are starting to grab the attention of authorities, but they are unsure how to respond. An executive director at Interpol discussed crimes in virtual reality and how he does not know if they can even be defined as crimes. He discussed how the first step to prosecuting these crimes, or even defining them, is to raise awareness of virtual reality. The authorities cannot do their job thoroughly if they do not know what the virtual reality world is in the first place. 

The main barrier to defining crimes in virtual reality as actual crimes is the requirement of a “physical” touch of some sort. It could be possible to charge offenders with a lesser crime, like harassment, which does not have a “physical” requirement. However, that also presents problems, as it would require the perpetrator to have committed multiple offenses over time. Another concern is the availability of evidence of these crimes, considering that “with a click of a mouse, evidence is on another continent.” Though Interpol would be able to prosecute crimes globally, local authorities run into problems with jurisdiction.  If local authorities cannot prosecute crimes that occur in their jurisdiction, it limits the number of law enforcement bodies that can bring the perpetrator to justice and gives victims less of a reason to report the crime. 

As virtual reality expands and problems within it grow worse, governments, tech companies and legal experts must work together to come up with solutions. This is just the beginning of what could possibly be a whole new world of crime: one that does not get prosecuted to the same extent as the physical world but leaves the victims with the same psychological trauma. 


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