We all (for the most part) have access to empathy—whether or not you're aware of it.
But, it's like a muscle: you have to practice, work out, extend a little farther than you feel comfortable with. It takes conscious, concerted effort to be aware of the intuitive messages you receive from yourself and others.
"Humans aren't as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were 'reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.'" - Neil deGrasse Tyson
Research indicates that walking in someone else’s shoes deepens understanding, understanding fosters empathy, and empathy motivates action—thereby fostering a more welcoming, vibrant community. However, there are many reasons you might not be able to go out and physically access the experiences of other people; time, money, location, and more.
Virtual reality can help bring those experiences toyou.
Why Virtual Reality?
Richland Library recently launched the My Life Experience mobile empathy lab. The project immerses users into the shoes of another, using virtual reality and other simulation tools. In the next year, our empathy lab will addresses numerous societal issues affecting our community, such as living with impairments, homelessness, criminal justice, sexual assault and immigration.
What makes virtual reality the right medium to practice empathic awareness? Books, magazines, documentary films, and YouTube videos have been doing this kind of work for years, bringing the experiences of people and places beyond our grasp into our homes. To answer this question, we are going to look at key differences between two visual mediums: film & television vs. video games.
People talk about how games don’t have the emotional impact of movies. I think they do—they just have a different palette. I never felt pride, or guilt, watching a movie.
— Will Wright, designer of The Sims
Film Theory 101: Stuff happens in different parts of the frame, often at once, and it can all be important. A single still from a movie could contain a magnitude of interesting events. Think of the first big chase scene in Mad Max: Fury Road—there’s a feast of action happening at once. You could rewatch this scene a dozen times and focus on new details each time.
What makes games and interactive media (like virtual reality) special is choice, actions with consequences. You can experience a film many ways; you can focus on different characters, on texture and light, on narrative structure, or how it relates to other films and cultural events. But the story always unfold in the same order. When you choose to look at Nux instead of Max, or Furiosa instead of the War Boys, you don’t affect the outcome of the movie.
Mad Max: Fury Road - Attack on the War Rig Scene
If Fury Road was a game, you determine where Furiosa drives the War Rig, or which War Boys she aims at out of the vehicle and in what order. Each action changes the story. Reacting too slow when someone climbs on the truck could result in one of the women dying, and this could affect how the story branches and develops.
This is how games move us, through choice. A game as simple as Super Mario impacts us because we guide the characters as ourselves. Even if the simulation is only providing the illusion of choice, agency is a powerful tool.
If you want to move people, you should move them.
— Jeremy Bailenson
Physical movement in play adds another level of agency and impact. Katherine Isbister’s How Games Move Uslooks at a neurological study that observed “certain neurons in our brains fire when we simply watch movement others make; these same neurons in our own brains fire when we make similar movements ourselves.” A tea party with actual cups and saucers feels more real than pure imagination, a medical training with real tools feels more accurate than a textbook. Both are simulations, but the movement heightens reality.
This is why people refer to VR as an “empathy machine”—the power to to create long-term change in someone by giving them agency, however brief, in an experience outside of themselves. Or, as virtual reality researcher Jeremy Bailenson notes, "If you want to move people, you should move them.”