Virtual Reality – the empathy machine?

A few months ago a listserv i’m a part of had a very interesting discussion about virtual reality (VR) and empathy – in part a response to Chris Milk’s assertions that VR is an ’empathy machine’, but also a wider discussion about how VR is being used for non-fiction narratives.

As VR gets bigger – with the release of consumer headsets on the horizon – I think it’s vital that we continue to interrogate the medium; the language that is used to describe it, the assumptions that are held about it and the possible paths it could take.

Below are some of the contributions to that conversation on the listserv – a conversation that I am sure is going to develop, change and grow as virtual reality becomes more established and accessible.

Who exactly are we “feeling” for?
Michele Stephenson

Filmmaker and co-founder of Rada Film Group

Who exactly are we “feeling” for?  Is it to me make us ultimately feel better about ourselves.  How much of a “selfish” act is empathy ultimately when true structural change needs to be addressed.  How do you translate the emotional into pushing for structural shifts that are needed in society? It’s complicated.  And why can’t we empathize through better listening of our fellow human being.  How much of our own “comfort” are we willing to shift in order to make change?  Just some questions as we ponder the enormous potential of VR.

I fear the “tourism” aspect of these endeavors.  Much in the same way organized tours exist of favelas or shantytowns in parts of the global south.  Be there without needing to be there.  What is the ultimate goal?  How can technology and intimate storytelling help us achieve real systemic shifts and a more just society without exoticizing the “other”?  It requires self reflection and an ability to perhaps use technology that can help us question our own “positions”  and/or identity and our roles.  I am sure many of the research and folks mentioned in this thread have reflected on this.  I hope to delve more deeply into some of the ones suggested.

I think the story itself probably is an important factor in creating empathy

Anselm Hook

We studied ‘presence’ in VR at my lab which may have some overlap with empathy (in that feeling present may help a new participant to better sense the sum of many subtle forces that underlie a specific struggle or issue in an observed persons life).

Our goal was more to create a sense of immersion rather than an emotional response; we found that at a high refresh rate, low latency, high resolution that participants felt more involved. But we didn’t look at it as broadly as I would feel it deserves. For example I think the story itself probably is an important factor in creating empathy. And I found that creating sets that bridge between where a person is and where we transport them to helps.

We start people out in a virtual copy of the same room they are in and then change the setting gradually – this bridges the two worlds (the real and the vr) and helps create a sense of truly undergoing a journey to a new place…

We need to be careful of the people we are taking through the journey.

Nancy Schwartzman
Director, producer, mobile app developer and CEO of Tech 4 Good.

In addition to mindful, thoughtful, intersectional action steps – We need to be careful of the people we are taking through the journey.

An after-care model, some kind of warning system (without going overboard with trigger warnings), but the complexities and outcomes of throwing a viewer/player into a deep trauma with no warming before and no after-care/come down, analysis model is pretty rough, and in some cases can seem like a shock for shock’s sake.

We have to understand how we offer meaningful actions emerging out of intense experiences

Sam Gregory 
Program Director at WITNESS, and teaches on human rights and participatory media as an Adjunct Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School.

It seems to me a real leap to think of VR as an empathy machine without thinking about the context in which we experience VR. So I think we have to understand how we offer meaningful actions emerging out of intense experiences – otherwise we give people an intense experience but risk that we alienate people from returning or learning more.

I think VR and immersive experience works very well for intensive encounters, and for responding intense moments – but not sure how well it encourages us to empathise with long-terms structurally-induced suffering for example. Coming from a human rights background, there is often a prioritisation in attention on shocking, very visible violence or events, rather than long-term degradation of people’s rights and dignity. Empathy also tends to prioritize linkages to particular individuals rather than structural thinking.

I’ve been exploring some of these issues in a ‘co-presence for good’ project I’ve been working on, and documenting relevant experiences in ‘immersive advocacy’.

If VR and immersive/theater-y things can get larger numbers of people closer to being stronger, more informed, more persuasive advocates — that’s a good thing

Liz Manne
Management consultant to nonprofit organisations and an expert in cultural strategies for social change

I know nothing about VR, but I do know something about international humanitarian work so let me add two things to the thread:

1. It sounds like some of these VR experimentations are similar to “theatrical” type immersion experiences. For example Crossroads has been running refugee and poverty immersion experiences at places like Davos for a while.

In their words: “The simulation ‘compresses’ time and, in 75 minutes, seeks to re-create some of the pressures faced by those in need: the battle for education, shelter, medical care, water, food, corruption in the marketplace and the abuse of loan sharks in communities with weak legal infrastructure. The cast members are humanitarian workers, all volunteer, drawn from a range of nationalities.” (Crossroads previously did a refugee simulation.)

I am familiar enough with the folks who run this program to trust their motivations, intentions, and values. I sincerely believe they are good people, motivated to inspire empathy and thereby — ultimately — to reduce poverty and, in the case of their refugee simulation, improve conditions for refugees.

But I challenge their “theory of change.” The fact is I find the whole thing immensely creepy; a kind of “poverty porn” or a Euro-lensed colonialist “tourism.” Creepy enough that I think possibly more harm than good… and makes me suspicious of VR immersive empathy experimentations in general. (My comments echo others on this list, but – as per usual – with less tact and sophistication, a certain disservice to the large and important discussion of the legacy of colonialism: Europe’s “original sin,” the gift that keeps on giving.)

2.  There is a phenomenon in humanitarian work, and related fields, called “vicarious trauma” – well beyond “compassion fatigue” to actual secondary traumatic stress. This is quite real. I would think that the more intensive and immersive these “visits” are – VR or otherwise – the deeper the risk for vicarious trauma and the greater need for in-depth, evidence-based training and guidance for the “visitors” (not “trigger warnings” – but that’s a subject for another time).

Forgive the self-reference, but as I mainly have myself as a lab rat, let me report on my personal experience with RR (real reality) as opposed to VR, in amongst the most heart wrenching and overwhelming of humanitarian crises in recent years (post-earthquake Haiti, Somali famine crisis).

Recognising fully that I have had the privilege of leaving (as well as the privilege of witnessing, which is an extraordinary, life-changing privilege indeed), ultimately I have found that my being able to have these experiences has made me a stronger, more informed, more persuasive advocate (and just generally less of a materialist jerk). And I have to believe that’s a good thing. And if VR and immersive/theater-y things can get larger numbers of people closer to being stronger, more informed, more persuasive advocates — that’s a good thing. Lots of warning labels. But on balance, a net positive for the planet.

From elsewhere…

The Limits of Virtual Reality: Debugging the Empathy Machine
Ainsley Sutherland
MIT OpenDocLab

Put otherwise, my experience of an assemblage of the visual and haptic experience of another is putting me in their place, but not actually in their body. And this is the central critique of VR as a successful medium for “increasing” empathy: that it cannot reproduce internal states, only the physical conditions that might influence that. As Coxon noted in Soupporis’ article, the system was incapable of reproducing “inner experience”.
>> Read more

‘The Tender Instinct is the Hope of the World’: Human Feeling and Social Change before Empathy
Gillian Swanson
University of the West of England

If empathy is fundamentally based on a movement of feeling within the individual, a transformation based on the imagining of the inner states of others, it can only deliver a heightened understanding of their responses. One of the main concerns expressed in debates about both empathy and sympathy – the way imitation functioned – followed from this interactive model of social feeling: a concern that the imagining of the inner life of others may actually be based on the projection of the individual’s own feelings into the object, rather than an authentic understanding that derived from an engagement with the particularity of the object.
>> Read more