Virtual worlds and immersive realities

Technology and the internet offer opportunities to escape reality; to enter virtual worlds and spaces to play games, chat and engage in experiences that may not be possible in the offline world. While the much-touted ‘metaverse’ of everyone engaging with online services through virtual reality headsets has yet to come to pass, virtual worlds in gaming are becoming more common, and young people can be quick to adopt new technology and online experiences.

In this deep dive, we will explore the nature of virtual worlds and immersive environments: the benefits to young people, the potential risks and the steps you can take as an educator to support your learners to use these developing technologies positively, safely and responsibly.

Illustration of a VR headset

What are virtual worlds and immersive realities?    

Illustration of a young woman with blonde hair wearing a VR headset in a fantasy world.

“Virtual worlds are persistent, immersive environments, based on technologies including 3D and extended reality (XR), which make it possible to blend physical and digital worlds in real-time, for a variety of purposes such as designing, making simulations, collaborating, learning, socialising, carrying out transactions or providing entertainment.”

European Commission (2023)

Above is a definition by the European Commission of virtual worlds. However, depending on your perspective and the experiences of your learners, virtual worlds and immersive environments can take a wide range of forms online.

These can include:

  • Virtual reality (VR) – using a virtual reality headset or other technology to interact with a computer-generated 3D representation of an image, object or environment.
  • Augmented reality (AR) - superimposing computer-generated images or details on a user's view of the real world, providing a composite view. 
  • Mixed reality (MR) – providing a mixture of computer generated and real-world objects into a single environment, i.e. a user can interact with computer generated objects within a view of a real environment. This could be through a headset with passthrough camera (that allows an external view of surroundings) or using the screen and camera on a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet.
  • Extended reality (XR) – the umbrella term given to VR, AR and MR technology.
  • Persistent 3D game worlds and spaces – this could include virtual worlds created by companies or users for others to interact in. Examples can include Massive Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, virtual chat apps where users interact in the form of avatars and customisable online games such as Roblox.
  • Simulations – Virtual spaces and environments constructed for a specific purpose or to practise specific skills or interactions, e.g. flight simulator tools used by pilots, rollercoaster simulators to test out physics, etc.
  • And more!

What opportunities and benefits do they offer?

School pupils in the classroom with VR headsets on and laptops.

It is important to recognise that virtual worlds (and the technology used to access them) can offer a number of opportunities to children and young people, as well as other users.

It can include:

  • Enjoyment and immersion – many immersive experiences are designed for entertainment purposes and to convince a user that they are actually in a world different to their own. In the same way that children are very quick to seek out and identify the most enjoyable and fun online experiences in other areas, virtual worlds are no different!
  • Exploration and creativity – a virtual world can present an unlimited environment in which to explore, and can be customised in any way imaginable. They can also encourage creativity – games and simulations that allow users to create their own environments, features and objects can enable children to show off their creative potential.
  • Experiences – while many virtual worlds and experiences are designed to take a user away from the real world, some are designed to recreate real world environments and experiences that might be difficult for children to partake in in real life. For example, virtual recreations of museums, art galleries and famous landmarks allow anyone to enjoy these experiences regardless of their physical location.
  • Practice of skills/techniques – virtual worlds and simulations enable the practice of skills and techniques in a low-risk environment. Activities that might carry a high level of risk in the real world can be practised extensively in a simulation without negative impact to physical health or wellbeing. Examples could include a skydive simulator, practising performing medical procedures or recreating scientific experiments in a perfectly controlled environment.
  • Accessibility – one major benefit of virtual experiences is the ability to tailor those experiences to the needs of the user in a way that real world environments cannot match. They can enable users with physical and mental disabilities to engage with activities that they would prove challenging in the real world. This example of bespoke musical instruments for physically disabled musicians, and this inclusive experience for physically disabled children at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics show the benefits that virtual worlds can bring to everyone.
  • Connection and convenience – while some virtual experiences still have a barrier to entry (such as purchasing a headset or other specific technology), there are plenty of experiences that are freely available to all. Many simulations are cloud-based and therefore quick and convenient to access. Immersive experiences also provide another avenue for online users to connect with each other.
  • Boost to well-being – although still in early stages, some research has shown that virtual world technologies can have a positive impact on emotional well-being, as well as provide opportunities for medical practitioners to more effectively assess mental health. Virtual world experiences that encourage physical movement can also lower stress and contribute to physical health and rehabilitation.


Take a moment to consider the potential benefits of virtual worlds and immersive environments to your learners. You may wish to spend some time asking your learners about their virtual experiences in order to better understand them.

Here are some possible questions you could use to guide a discussion about the benefits of (and reasons for) engaging with virtual worlds:

  • What do think ‘virtual world’ means?
  • What are your favourite games and apps that allow you to explore a virtual world?
  • What do you like about exploring virtual worlds?
  • What are the risks or tricky aspects of using virtual worlds?

What are the possible risks associated with these technologies?

When considering the risks associated with virtual environments, it is important to recognise that these risks can vary greatly from experience to experience and from user to user. The technology involved, the nature of the virtual world and the nature and behaviour of other users can all impact on the experience that a child may have in a virtual world.

Before reading through this section, you may wish to familiarise yourself with the types of risks that children and young people face online, as many of them can also apply to virtual experiences. In the Teacher Corner, the core module, ‘Key online safety risks’, outlines the broad range of risks that youth (and adults) can face online. The following sections will explore the risks related to virtual worlds under five key areas: content, contact, conduct, contract and cross-cutting.

What are the risks? – Content

As with other forms of online entertainment and communication, there are different types of content that can present a risk to children and young people online.

Here are some of the risks related to content that may be available or experienced through virtual worlds:

  • Adult content – not all virtual experiences are designed for children and may feature content that is only suitable for adults, such as pornographic content, content that promotes/resembles gambling, or content that displays other themes unsuitable and potentially harmful for children (such as depictions of substance abuse).
  • User-generated content – games and experiences that allow users to create their own environments, objects and experiences may contain content that is unsuitable or potentially harmful for children. This could include extreme graphic violence, depictions of self-harm or other content that may be distressing.
  • Does greater immersion lead to greater impact? – horror games with jump scares and frightening scenes can be more impactful when experienced through a VR headset as opposed to through a screen. Virtual experiences designed to evoke strong emotional responses may affect children more greatly, particularly if this results in negative emotions such anxiety, fear or upset.
  • Information disorder – As with all forms of online media and communication, virtual worlds can present information that is misleading or false, with the potential to influence a user’s behaviour and beliefs, as well as present risks to safety and well-being. You can learn more about information disorder in the ‘Mis- and disinformation’ deep dive module.

What are the risks? – Contact

Many virtual world experiences offer the opportunity for users to interact with each other. With a range of communication options available in different virtual worlds, the following risks are important to be aware of:

  • Online spaces are a mix of adults and children – as with popular online games and social media platforms, it is important for children to recognise that they inhabit virtual worlds alongside other users; some of whom may be adults. Interacting with strangers in virtual worlds presents many of the same considerations that interacting with strangers in a game or app also presents.
  • Avatars – many virtual experiences allow users to inhabit the environment in the form of an avatar. This may be chosen from a limited number of presets, or take the form of a fully customisable character. Some characters may not have a human form; users might take the form of animals, aliens, robots or other creatures! Therefore, it is important for children to recognise that virtual world users will not look like they do in the real world, making it harder to know who they actually are.
  • Hate speech – there have been instances of virtual worlds and games being used as platforms to direct hate speech at individual users and spread hate about individuals and groups based on their protected characteristics. Although these experiences aren’t common for all users, they do still occur – this article explains how players in a persistent online game were banned for homophobic trolling behaviour.
  • Unwanted contact – just as unwanted contact on social media (through friend or follow requests, direct messages and sending unwanted content) can feel threatening or intrusive, this behaviour can feel more so when experienced through a virtual environment. Contact may take the form of messages, audio or in-world gestures/movements by other players.

What are the risks? – Conduct

As with other online experiences, the behaviour of users can impact on their own safety and wellbeing, as well as the safety and wellbeing of others. This can take the following forms:

  • Bullying – virtual worlds offer another avenue for bullying to occur. Behaviours can include upsetting messaging, offensive audio chat, harassment and stalking behaviours by virtual avatars, and attempts to exclude. You can learn more about the forms that online bullying can take in the Cyberbullying deep dive.
  • Invasion of personal space – many virtual environments allow users to navigate them using an avatar. In some virtual worlds, this has led to some users invading the personal space of others with their avatar, to intimidate or upset other players. Many virtual spaces now offer features such as personal boundaries and ‘safe zones’ to enable users to control how others may interact with them.
  • Disclosure of private information – interactions between users in virtual worlds can lead to the disclosure of personal and private details about an individual – this can present further safety and cybersecurity risks.

What are the risks? – Contract

As many virtual worlds and experiences are often entertainment or communication focused, they share many of the same risks that games and apps present around data collection and cybersecurity. These risks can include:

  • Data collection – technology used in virtual worlds and immersive environments typically include a number of sensors and cameras used to enhance the experience. However, this does mean that sensitive data about users may also be collected, such as biometric data (face recognition), data around emotions displayed by a user, and other behaviours a user exhibits while using the technology (such as eye-tracking and gestures). For some games and apps, it is unclear which types of data are collected and how they might be used.
  • Persuasive design – as with popular games and apps, virtual world experiences may use techniques to encourage users to spend longer in the experience, to interact with features or advertising, or to spend real money in the game/app. You can learn more about the nature of these techniques in the deep dive on persuasive design.
  • Cybercrimes – cybercriminals may use virtual worlds as an opportunity to trick users into disclosing personal data (including financial details) in order to hijack their account or hack into other accounts in order to steal data, money or property. Further details about the nature and impact of this criminal behaviour can be found in the Cybersecurity and cybercrime deep dive.

What are the risks? – Cross-cutting

There are some risks presented by virtual worlds and immersive experiences that will vary dramatically from child to child. Some of these can also vary with regards to the level of impact, both in the short term and the long term. These risks can include:

  • Risks to physical wellbeing – in the same way that videogaming might lead to greater physical inactivity, use of VR technology might also promote a more sedentary lifestyle. Excessive use of virtual worlds could possible lead to a worsening of physical health, with an impact on eyesight and posture.
  • Risks to mental wellbeing – digital experiences have the potential to affect mood – this can be both a positive and negative thing. Experiences that lead to frequent less pleasant emotions such as anxiety, fear or loneliness, could all impact the short- and long-term mental wellbeing of a young person. It is also unclear how immersive experiences may affect an individual’s identity over a long period of time, particularly if they are adopting a digital persona that differs to their offline identity.
  • The digital divide – while the barrier to accessing virtual worlds is lowering, with the necessary hardware and software becoming cheaper (or free in some cases), there is still a significant technology gap between those that can afford to access these experiences, and those who cannot. It is important to be mindful of these differences between your own learners, and the impact that this can have on wellbeing and self-worth.

How can I support my learners to use these positively and safely?

A classroom with one professor and three pupils wearing a VR headset

Your learners’ experiences of virtual worlds and immersive environments may differ dramatically, and this will affect the way in which you discuss and educate them on the risks outlined above. However, the following approaches may be useful to support them:

  • Explore! – the best way to understand your learners’ experiences can be to try out the technology and games/apps they enjoy. You may be able to do this alone or as part of a class/group activity. This offers opportunities to identify the positive aspects as well as the potential risks.
  • Discuss the risks – taking time to discuss the risks that virtual worlds can present is important to help children and young people become more aware. As many of the risks are similar to other online experiences (such as online gaming), you could discuss them as part of wider conversations or lessons on social media and gaming.
  • Understand the benefits – it can be tempting to focus on the risks that virtual worlds present, but it is also important to acknowledge the benefits that they offer to your learners. Doing so with help you approach discussions and learning in this area in a more balanced way.
  • Identify safety features – as with games and apps, there are often safety features in virtual world experiences that allow users to take control of their privacy and safety, as well as seek support and help for themselves or others when needed. Identifying these safety tools and directing your learners on where to find them can empower them to protect themselves and others users.
  • Discuss healthy habits – VR technology and other virtual world technologies present an opportunity to help your learners to understand how to use technology as a tool, and how to use it in a safe and responsible way. This links into wider discussions you can also have around ‘screentime’, use of smartphones, games consoles and other technology, and the ways that learners can identify when technology is making them feel worse rather than better. More advice on this topic can be found in the deep dive on healthy digital habits.

Further information and resources

Want to learn more about fake news and teaching media literacy skills? These resources may be useful:

  • Better Internet for Kids Resources – This article explains the nature of virtual worlds further. Scroll to the bottom of the article for links to educational resources from across the Insafe network of Safer Internet Centres. 
  • Virtual Worlds and Web 4.0 – Learn more about the European Commission’s strategy on virtual worlds and the four pillars underpinning the strategy to maximise the opportunities that these technologies present.
  • CO:RE Evidence Base – A database of publications and research on youth online experiences. Searching the database with ‘virtual reality’, allows you to browse and read relevant research related to this issue.