Meta opens Horizon Worlds to children - a risky move

Meta opens Horizon Worlds to children - a risky move

A recent report says Meta wants to attract a younger audience for Horizon Worlds, but a flood of teens might not help the Metaverse platform.

Meta needs more people, at least in Horizon Worlds. The proto-Metaverse was supposed to be virtual reality's central social meeting place—a new form of social media with more spatial presence in three-dimensional virtual worlds.

According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Meta was aiming for around 500,000 active users by the end of 2022. However, the reality was different, and it retained less than 200,000, leading to a course correction. Meta cut the user target in half without further ado.

Now the WSJ reports on Meta's new plans; bring in a younger group, aged 13 to 17, to fill the audience vacuum again. A desperate attempt or the next logical step? Time for a classification.

Meta makes it official: Teens are welcome

According to the WSJ, an internal memo from Meta is available. The memo states that teens will officially have access to Horizon Worlds as early as next month.

Officially, because Horizon Worlds can only be accessed from the age of 18, however, users repeatedly report that numerous children and teens are already active in the colorful comic worlds.

Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft as role models

In the memo, Horizon Vice President Gabriel Aul is said to have proclaimed user retention as the highest goal for the first half of 2023. Teens and young adults, in particular, are to be targeted.

"Today our competitors are doing a much better job meeting the unique needs of these cohorts," Aul writes. "For Horizon to succeed we need to ensure that we serve this cohort first and foremost."

Epic's Fortnite is often cited as a showcase for a metaverse future and should serve as a model for Meta in terms of user numbers and content. | Image: Epic Games

By competitors, Aul likely means successful platforms like Fortnite or Roblox. Fortnite alone has more than 350 million players. Roblox has more than 30 million users daily (as of 2021), 67 percent of whom are younger than 16.

Horizon Worlds is a long way from these figures. With the new orientation, however, that could change. At least in theory.

Horizon Worlds could soon reach all teenagers

With the removal of the age barrier and the planned 2D version, user numbers could explode. So far, Horizon Worlds can only be accessed via the Meta Quest 2 or Quest Pro VR headsets. Recently, however, Meta announced the "imminent" release of Horizon Worlds without VR.

In the future, the social app will also be accessible via browser on PC, laptops,  smartphones, and tablets. This would theoretically allow Meta to reach almost all teenagers in Germany alone.

According to Pew Research, 91 percent of all 13- to 14-year-olds in the United States had access to smartphones in 2022. Among 15- to 17-year-olds, the figure is as high as 98 percent. Today, these figures are likely to be even higher.


Horizon for all: But is that what we want?

Judging by these numbers, the strategy could mean a breakthrough for Horizon Worlds. In practice, however, it might be different. It's not by chance that Horizon Worlds is losing users. The app is often described as boring. There is little actually fun content, and the design is largely unimaginative.

In October of last year, internal criticism of Horizon Worlds leaked out for the first time, underscoring this impression. At the time, The Verge reported a memo in which Meta's Metaverse Vice President Vishal Shah doubted the quality of the company's own product.

Shah also criticized employees who would not use Horizon Worlds itself. "Why is that? Why don’t we love the product we’ve built so much that we use it all the time? The simple truth is, if we don’t love it, how can we expect our users to love it?" said Shah.

Looking at the comments from users, Meta's internal criticism of its own product, and the declining user base overall, paints the following picture for me. Opening Horizon Worlds to teens is a desperate attempt to prevent sinking completely into irrelevance and to drive up user numbers at any cost. If VR Worlds had enough active participants, Meta would not take this risky step.

Minors on Horizon Worlds: A Risk for Meta's Image

Horizon Worlds already struggles with harassment and toxicity. Female avatars are often sexualized and virtually touched or verbally propositioned against their will. With (even more) minors flooding into this sometimes unfriendly environment, Meta will have to work harder to ban toxic users from the Horizon Worlds. Competent community moderation isn't one of Meta's strengths.

An experiment revealed serious moderation problems and showed that Meta moderators react slowly or not at all to problematic behavior. Most recently, Meta announced closed member areas for Horizon Worlds. Private book circles or games with friends and family will be held here.

In fact, Meta is likely to try to distribute the burden of moderation to users with the introduction of private rooms. Group leaders are supposed to take over moderation tasks or pass them on to other community members. Meta moderators would, therefore, no longer be required in closed rooms.

"Every community develops its own norms, etiquette, and social rules over time as it fosters a unique culture," Meta writes on its blog. In plain language: close the door, look the other way, and let groups sort out their own problems. Whether this automatically creates a safer environment is open to question.

Horizon Worlds: limited access in the real world

In Germany and several other parts of the real world, Horizon Worlds is still not accessible. For the time being, the Metaverse platform is reserved for users from the USA, Canada, and a few European countries. From the outside, this strategy also seems haphazard. Why doesn't Meta open the Horizon gates to more countries first instead of lifting the age limit?

With the launch of Meta Quest in Germany, it was considered very likely that Horizon Worlds would soon follow. So far, there are no official launch plans on Meta's part. Maybe that's just as well.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Pew Research