Empathy and VR Refugees

In this article, game writer Sande Chen discusses how the VR experience impacts empathetic responses.

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect under the topics of Social Impact Games, and Immersion.]

There's been a lot in the news lately about empathy and/or lack of empathy.  Can VR storytelling promote empathy for social impact or is it ultimately a misguided experience, even a form of "disaster porn"?

Dan Archer, a 2016 Tow Fellow researching VR journalism, writes in his article, "Dismantling the Metrics of Empathy (in 360 Video)," that storytellers need to walk a fine line in depicting hardship and suffering.  There's a danger in "too much empathy" since the extreme discomfort felt by viewers translates into revulsion and the opposite of the desired effect. Moreover, oversaturation can lead to "psychic numbing" as viewers dismiss and try to block sympathy towards mass suffering. That's why, as noted in "Statistics vs. Stories," people can empathize with an individual's story, but don't really emotionally connect to statistics.

In fact, in Archer's research, the team found that too much familiarity in a subject led to less emotional impact.  Oversaturation of refugee news stories resulted in less immersion in the VR setting.  Those who weren't familiar with the stories and said they were not really that interested in the topic had the most empathetic responses.

However, compared to traditional text or photo spreads, VR was generally better at motivating users to learn more about the subject and take social action. In particular, VR experiences with clear protagonists and narrative especially heightened empathetic connection since the viewers' sense of closeness to the characters helped to increase the level of immersion.  The more the participants trusted the narrator, the more engaged and connected they were.

One disadvantage to VR, though, was the complaints users had about uncomfortable headsets.  This may preclude longer-form pieces until a solution is found. At present, most cinematic VR is around 5 minutes long, which may not allow for in-depth treatment of a topic.

VR storytelling definitely has the potential to affect minds and hearts through its use in journalism, film, and social impact games, but storytellers will have to carefully consider how the presentation of their stories will impact users.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

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