VR & Empathy

“If you’ve played a 10-minute game about being a transwoman don’t pat yourself on the back for feeling like you understand a marginalized experience”

– Anna Anthropy

I suppose I’ve shown my cards: I’m skeptical about the idea of VR as being a vehicle for meaningful creation of empathy. Or, perhaps, it depends on the definition of ’empathy’. One notes that the secondary definition of empathy is “the imaginative ascribing to an object, as natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself.” My stance is that “immersive journalism” or other VR experiences are, like all media, ultimately disposable. Not that they are worthless, but that there is an agency over the experience that the user of VR has that the subject of a VR piece lacks. We may find ourselves magically transported to Syria, but we even more easily extricate ourselves by removing our headset. The Syrian in Aleppo has no such privilege. For the user, the VR experience has no past and no future, only the depicted present. And I would argue that that lack of context means that the emotions being drawn out are the emotions that the viewer would feel in the situation, not the emotions that the subject feels. These emotions may be related, but the focus of the subjectivity is important: the viewer is made the subject of the experience, making the subject of the narrative secondary. And, I would argue, empathy is about foregrounding the emotions of someone who is not oneself.

It’s the difference between asking “How would I feel if I were in Syria?” vs “How does a Syrian in Syria feel?”.

At least in the VR experiences I’ve explored, Virtual Reality changes my surroundings but does not change myself, at least not in that moment.

This is not to say that I believe that there is no use for art in generating emotions & broadening emotional interest. I see the role of art in the generation of empathy as being like the role advertising has in the generation of sales. VR experiences can very well draw strong emotions, and temporarily resituate oneself. Those emotions and thoughts can be haunting. The experience and its effect on the viewer can inspire the viewer to explore the topic further, to connect to people they normally do not connect to, etc, and this can lead to the development of empathy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *