Beyond empathy

Hey all, a reminder of what to post for your final reflections on the blog. I would like to move beyond the binary question of whether or not VR can promote empathy. Instead, would like you to consider:

—  A film you thought was persuasive in a positive way, in a negative way; and a film that changed the way you saw a given situation
— Without focusing on a value judgement of better or worse, would an immersive environment present the above content differently, and if so, how? To what end?
—   What you think the affordances of VR / immersive media are?
—   Do you think the affordances are different from other media, and if so, do you think they might be leveraged differently, whether for positive or negative, to persuade or promote agency?

—  Consider Dan Archer’s talk, and if you haven’t already, check out the VHIL, a NYT VR piece, and Dan’s sites Archcomix and Empathetic Media

The Nuances of VR

I was a volunteer at the Future of Storytelling where I assisted UNICEF with their VR experiences. “Clouds Over Sidra” was an immersive Syrian Refugee Film that ‘came to life’.  Experiencing a documentary that was narrated through the protagonist as a 360 angled view of her world, it did not provoke any form of empathy to me. The only clear distinction between a VR documentary and a one that could be streamed off YouTube, is the use of the technology and how accessible it is to the user – which does not necessarily leave a bigger impact on the viewer. I enjoy reflective debates over what documentaries do to us by tugging at our heartstrings, but by simply conveying it in a more ‘immersive’ light, does not necessarily mean it will garner more empathy.

An alternate VR experience that altered my perception was The Doghouse. As I looked down at my body with my headset on, I saw how my upper torso had transformed into one that had a large man’s beer belly and how I hastily chowed down my dinner over a dinner conversation with my distraught family. The line between virtual and physical was blurred, and it therefore transformed my perception of not just myself, but the character I was playing entirely.

Why VR is better and the project statement-Geyao YunqiZhou

Based on my Major Studio One final project, I found that even change gravity a little bit, the player will feel huge differences. The feeling of any movement such as jumping, running, revolving in VR is amplified. Because Virtual Reality is very powerful in immersing users, the transformations in the VR world may also evoke physical reaction, for example motion sickness. When we combine VR with story telling, it will be much more easier to impress the users, thus it will help to facilitate new perspective.


In VR world, people is allowed to do bad things, sometimes they are encouraged to steal, destroy or kill. Our project have two players, one of the player is playing a prisoner that need to be rescued by the other player. The prisoner is so weak that the other player may kill him dozens of times before he or she can help the prisoner get out. This game encourage the players to be responsible for their behaviors.
Usually, games should be fun enough to attract players. Sometimes, designers want games carry some means. Based on my research, there are two ways to achieve that story telling and game methodology.  A great story can educate audience, and story telling can enhance it. Game methodology is also a power way to change people’s mind. For example, there is a very poplar game in China called the Killing game. It requires the player to suspect other players and to analyse other player’s words. The more players play this game the more logical they will be. What’s more, player will understand others’ really meaning behind their words better. However, all these are based on how attractive the game is. Based on our user test, players love the game. Then we start to add the methodology that can help to facilitate new perspective. Our user tests also shows that the game is  still fun enough, and we believe that the more they play, the more impacts they got themselves.

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.

VR and The Point

VR is a powerful way to tell stories, it is a powerful way to convey emotions and it is a powerful tool that can be used (as any tool in hands of a human) right or wrong. Affordance is a great factor to consider when we talk about VR. Similar to what Dan Archer was telling us last class, VR does facilitates empathy but it is interesting to see that it is not accessible to everyone. The “making” and “receiving” of this tool is given to different sectors of people.

It is easy then to compare VR to TV’s or Radio’s earliest days, difference being that we are now aware of the level of empathy and immersion that these two mediums can transmit, weather as with VR we are still trying to find out.

As we move through different kinds of VR, from gaming to more “serious” ones, it is impossible not to point out that even the best-intentioned and researched VR experience is also curated on a certain way, conveying a specific point of view.

Again going to Archer’s talk about VR it is also interesting the intromission that the VR curator/artist/journalist is making inside the life of whoever he/she is wishing to portray. That said, VR is not the most transparent medium as is (as of today) impossible to pass unnoticed when working with it.


The goal we have for this project is for users to find a new perspective and share some common ground. We believe our last playtest was successful in doing so. While our users said they were having fun we could also see them interested in the dynamics and commentaries from their peers.

Going this same route will allow people to reflect what people see and how they see it.

[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.


the concept of “Who killed David” by Gi Sung Lee, Qianjin liu, Sam li

We are doing an immersive experience project, audiences switch to object’s perspective by touching each one of them, based on the information what they will see through objects’ perspective, audiences will figure out the truth behind a murder case.

we chose the concept of changing perspective, because we want the audiences feel how the changing perspective effects our assumptions. People always believe what they want to believe, in our project, we display 4 physical objects on the desk, each one of them will offer piece of information, audiences will reorganize those information piece and figure out what was happening, it is like this murder case, no one will get all the evidences, we are keeping approaching the truth, it is impossible for us to totally reveal the truth. The truth is always different from what they believe some how.