Teaching Empathy Through Virtual Reality

What is Empathy? My grandmother used to say that to understand someone we had to put ourself in their shoes.

This means being Empathic to that person’s feelings, why? Because by definition Empathy is:

“the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other being’s frame of reference” source

And what does this have to do with Virtual Reality? Well think about it, Virtual Reality actually allows us to take another person’s point of view!

Virtual Reality And Perspective

In a quite literal way Virtual Reality allows us to see through another persons perspective. To exercise empathy people need to be capable of imagining and putting themselves on another person’s situation.

This allows us to have an idea of what they feel, and why they do what they do. By using Virtual Reality we can skip that first step entirely.

A person need not think about another person’s perspective. Instead he can be shown through Virtual Reality and without realizing it this person should understand the different perspective this person has.

How News Media Tries To Inspire Empathy

People are not always willing to give… I don’t particularly see this as a bad thing. We work and have a limited amount of money, and it seems there is always a new struggle that requires money.

This has made charities to study what makes people donate money. What they have found is that people need to feel Empathy for the victims in order to donate.

This made charity campaign change drastically. Before this discovery charities would talk about facts and statistics. They would say 3 out of 10 children in Africa are child soldiers (not an actual statistic, just an example).

For many the idea that 30% of the kids in Africa were child soldiers was horrible, but they didn’t think giving a couple of bucks would change that.

So what charities do now is tell a story, they talk about this one particular kid who is suffering from this situation, and they even ask you to put yourself in his situation.

This makes people realize the horror of the situation and feel empathy, which in turn makes them more likely to donate.

How Virtual Reality Can Take This Even Further

So we know that empathy is key to receiving funds for charities, and while the media does a great job at it, sometimes it can be overwhelming.

It’s not that i don’t want to help, but rather that i cant possibly help everyone!

However helping is not always about giving money, it can be about doing other activities.

So charities like Amnesty International are developing VR experiences, designed to put people on the feet of tragedy victims.

Most noticeable we have an IRC simulation, that puts you in the middle of a refugee camp in Lebanon. The simulation has been dubbed “the empathy machine”.

Why? Because people are immediately stricken by the images. Some as simple as a women and her child on a condemned building, or children playing in the middle of the camp.

VR Games That Teach Empathy

One of the most interesting experiments around empathy is regarding a sort of game. The game depicts the journey to homelessness.

You start at home and find out you were fired, after having trouble to find a new job and pay rent you must start selling items from your apartment.

Eventually you find yourself evicted and must live and sleep in your car. The car is also eventually towed which forces the player to sleep in the street or in a bus, while keeping one eye open to avoid getting robbed.

After playing the game, participants can choose to sign a petition for housing for the homeless.

The study will interpret whether the VR experience has made them more likely to sign the petition.

Image Credit Ovio22

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