VR, empathy & the refugee crises
In a TED talk in Spring 2015, Chris Milk made famous the idea that virtual reality can be “the ultimate empathy-machine” and we must look no further than The New York Times VR journalism to see the truth born from this claim.
“We can't bring donors or people to the field, but we bring the field to [them.] That's what's so great about VR; that's what makes it … such an important tool for charities."
- Executive producer, International Rescue Committee
Generally speaking, the aim of empathy-driving VR is to provide unique insight into the position of people in adverse conditions, hoping that the immersive experience will raise understanding and drive charitable action via heightened empathy.
As the format continues to expand, I want to look at VR’s potential as a storytelling empathy-machine, paying specific attention to the hype surrounding it and the possibly harmful real-world consequences this may have.
Clouds Over Sidra (2015)– UN / UNICEF / Vrse.works
Clouds Over Sidra is an early and widely known example of VR being used to offer a unique perspective on the refugee experience. Following a 12-year-old girl named Sidra, the experience was able to shed real insight into the day-to-day experience of a refugee child. While not exactly a POV experience, the sequence of 360 environments is scored with a narrative VO, driving empathy simply by attaching the perspective to a real person in the camp.
The Displaced (2015) – New York Times
Following Chris Milk’s TED talk, The New York Times moved quickly to own the experiential VR space by partnering with Vrse.works (the creators of Clouds Over Sidra).
The Displaced – which brings the user into the lives of 3 refugee children from different corners of the globe – was prime content for their giveaway of 1.1 million Google Cardboard headsets, which set in place the new era of experiential journalism.
Four Walls: Inside Syrian Lives (2017) – International Rescue Committee
“I had seen and read about the Syrian refugee crisis, but I wanted to know more. I simply couldn’t understand the entirety of the situation unless I saw for myself.”
– Rashida Jones
Rashida Jones’ Four Walls is a further iteration of this, using VR’s journalistic ability to let the user hear stories of suffering first-hand (take a look here). As suggested, seeing suffering in person is a unique experience that offers a type of understanding that a screen or article cannot provide. VR is simply the closest thing to being there. And that’s where it excels.
Moderating the hype
While empathy-driving VR experiences offer many crucial benefits, and do things that other storytelling devices and media cannot do, the hype surrounding them may be doing more harm than good.
For Paul Bloom (Professor of Psychology at Yale University), VR applied in this way isn’t, “the moral game changer”, that many make it out to be. Ultimately, empathy is a complex thing, and what drives us to compassionate action isn’t as straightforward as simply seeing it.
Raising awareness above and beyond potentially biased news and online media is a great thing. However, well-meaning projects can have unwanted real-world consequences.
An example considered by Bloom (in his article for The Atlantic), concluded that simulations of blindness were ineffective at producing accurate feelings of empathy for the day-to-day condition of blindness. Comparatively, the refugee experience cannot be fully understood via a five-minute snapshot. Thinking that it can going in, is where the negative real world effects arise.
It’s very possible, likely even, that once removed from a VR experience, users will overplay their brief insight, believing they now understand the refugee experience.
In the blindness case, users only gained an inconsequential insight of becoming-blind, not being-blind, yet came out believing entirely untrue and negative things about the blind condition. The problem is not the VR format, it’s the rhetoric equating immersive experiences with the experiences themselves.
Bloom concludes that while VR can be effective as an empathy-machine, a book is ultimately a far more accurate insight into the complex psychological condition of being-blind or being-a-refugee. While this is true in a lot of ways, VR experiences have much greater reach in modern society.
Plus, over and above everyday news and social media coverage of the refugee crisis, VR has many amazing benefits, the removal of bias being a central one.
Sea Prayer, released just last week, is an illustrated 360 film by the award-winning novelist Khaled Hosseini documenting the story of a lost child during a sea-crossing. This is a great example of a different approach to generating empathy through VR, using poetic narrative to offer deep insight into a specific sorrow.
Whether journalistic or artistic, VR experiences (whether narrative or experiential or both) will allow people to connect with issues in ways other media cannot, and we should be excited about exploring the possibilities.
Yet as we do, we should keep in mind that overstating the power of real-world POV VR to literally put you in the position of another may have unwanted affects, leaving people with a generally false understanding of the issue the experience was designed to illuminate.