[Shakti] Thoughts on potential, positives & negatives issues of facilitating empathy through VR


Virtual reality is something I terrifically excited about. It’s a new way of storytelling, and viewer engagement. When smartphones are able to also pick up depth.. the medium of content we will consume will be entirely revolutionary. However, that doesn’t imply that the actual substance of the content we consume will also be different.

I was looking through the VR stories created and curated by NYT earlier today. I didn’t download the app, so I just had a chance to read through the stories. They mention several times that they believe VR is a new way of telling stories that we often can’t relate to. My honest opinion is that, while VR is obviously amazing and a brilliant emerging technology, I am skeptical about it being able to create a lot more empathy than another other form of media. (Also how are we defining empathy? It’s one thing to share the physical experience of another person, and it’s a different concept when they try to understand the experience.) Although VR is so engaging, I find the whole process and set up, and use of a gigantic block of industrial design resting on my head takes away something from the experience. As a user experience designer, I find that very restrictive in the story telling process. We consume more 21st media through screens, but in case of VR, there are screens + big black box on head.
I read this paper called ‘Designing Games to Foster Empathy’ by Belman and Flanagan that listed some core finding from their research on how to design so as to create empathy. Here is my favorite points from the paper: 1. Players are likely to empathize only when they make an intentional effort to do so as the game begins. The game may explicitly ask players to empathize, or it may more subtly encourage them to take on a focused empathetic posture. However, without some kind of effective empathy induction at the outset, most people will play “unempathetically.” 2. Give players specific recommendations about how their actions can address the issues represented in the game. Being able to give players an experience that offers the above two experiences, I believe it could create great experiences.
As a designer, I am very excited for the future of VR, but in terms of it being a medium to create empathy… it’s only as strong as the story it’s trying to tell and the interaction it offers.


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