How VR can be an engine for empathy

By David Ryan Polgar

Learn why virtual reality is often called an “empathy machine”

The underlying promise of VR is that it will present an immersive experience with realistic emotive characters that will bleed off onto the headset user. In comparison to the detached position we may take with TV or film, VR’s allure is its capacity to more meaningfully convey the feelings of another.

Our inability to take action on social issues is not from lack of awareness. We swim in a sea of statistics, alarming articles, and viral videos on every possible crises, from climate change to refugees to racism. What we lack, however, is that essential ingredient of motivation towards action. That’s where virtual reality could be a game changer. Some charities, for example, have noticed a significant increase in donations when incorporating VR experiences in campaigns or events. Could VR, and its immersive empathic experiences, really help create social change?

“VR is not a media experience. When it’s done well, it’s an actual experience.” This is according to Professor Jeremy Bailenson of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, in a segment for CBS This Morning last year. Major tech companies consult with the Virtual Human Interaction Lab due to its groundbreaking VR work and research. Professor Bailenson’s research indicates a slight change in how we interact with one another after going through certain VR experiences. “Becoming someone else in VR and experiencing this trauma first hand in general causes a reduction in prejudice compared to the typical way that we try to address this.”

I recently had the experience of being a captured journalist, going through a simulated trauma of interrogation through VR. As a photojournalist being held captive in Iran’s Evin Prison, I was staring face to face with my tormentor. When he threatened to shoot my fellow prisoner, I was torn between holding firm on my innocence or giving my tormentor what he clearly wanted–my forced confession. While safely behind a VR headset in the Brooklyn studio of iNK Stories, my mind was transported to the grim interrogation setting and the life-or-death decisions required of me. Instead of being a passive viewer, my yes-or-no answers (accomplished by nodding or shaking my head) were integral to how the scenes of the 12-minute VR experience called BLINDFOLD would play out—and whether my fellow prisoner would survive.

In the end, I confessed to my interrogator. VR, in this context, allowed me to grapple with the difficulty of pressured choices as opposed to watching a video or listening to a lecture. As an active participant, I was given agency—but also the weight of my choices. As someone who had falsely confessed, I could now relate to the plight of targeted journalists being held captive, or killed, in various countries across the world.

”The message is being presented in a way that forces you to engage with the topic,” says Navid Khonsari, co-founder and creative director of iNK Stories. “This is not a fly on the wall 360 degree camera. You give people an understanding…They are an actual participant.”

To ratchet up the realism, the ending of BLINDFOLD takes you out of the Iranian interrogation room and confronts the viewer with the faces and names of real journalists who have been captured or killed across the globe. iNK Stories partnered with the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Center for Human Rights in Iran. “After the experience, you can be part of the change,” says Khonsari.

Similar to other VR experts I spoke with, Khonsari described a saturation we feel as a society with an endless amount of distressing statistics. The VR experience, on the other hand, naturally pushes one’s emotional buttons. VR is and “easy segway to that part of the brain, that part of the heart,” says Khonsari. Similar to statements from Professor Jeremy Bailenson of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, Khonsari expresses concern for this feature’s potential exploitation. At the same time, the ability to trigger empathy could be a boon for nonprofits looking to increase engagement levels. “Social impact can benefit massively from VR,” says Khonsari.

I first saw Navid Khonsari when he was on stage at the inaugural VR for Change Summit in New York City, part of the 14th annual Games for Change festival. Khonsari was joined on stage by Omid Memarian, the executive director for Human Rights in Iran—a journalist who had spent time wrongly-accused and interrogated in a situation reminiscent of the BLINDFOLD experience. BLINDFOLD follows on the heels of iNK Stories’ acclaimed 1979: The Revolution, which has pushed forward the new genre of “verite games.”

While VR had always been part of the Games for Change over the years, the current influx of journalists, researchers, and filmmakers experimenting with the medium warranted its own special track this year. “Games for Change recognizes the amazing potential that VR has to change human behavior, ultimately making an impact for good, which is why we expanded our programming this year to include the first-ever VR for Change Summit,” states Susanna Pollack, President of Games for Change. “There is so much being done with this technology that we felt it was the right time to cultivate a place where developers and members of the community can come together and talk about the positive social change that is being made with VR.”

“We’re excited about exploring a mental, physical, and emotional space and to give the user agency, says Vassiliki Khonsari, the other co-founder of iNK Stories alongside her husband, Navid. Vassiliki Khonsari, who serves as COO for the studio, provides her experience as a documentary filmmaker (ESPN, TLC, Vh1, and others) to provide greater authenticity and emerging storytelling techniques.

Vassiliki Khonsari discussed the need for creating a sweet spot with entertainment and a social mission, and how entertainment does not have to be exploitative. The BLINDFOLD experience was less about being told what to think or do, and more to “rethink how you’re thinking.” Overall, she hopes that the VR experience is making an “important contribution for journalists in hostile territory.” Unlike an article that can be read or a video that can be watched, the BLINDFOLD experience was felt. And in that feeling came a greater sense of relationship and understanding to an issue that can appear foreign or abstract to most of us.

Gabo Arora has seen firsthand the power of VR to spark social change. Arora is a creative director and senior advisor at the United Nations, along with being founder and president of LightShed—a VR and social impact startup. As co-creator of the highly influential Clouds Over Sidra, a short VR film about the Syrian refugee crisis, Arora witnessed a major uptick in donations that can be attributed to the visceral nature of the film. As the first film shot for the United Nations, Clouds Over Sidra follows a 12-year-old refugee as she goes throughout her day. A fundraising program by UNICEF found that one in six people pledged donations to the refugee crisis after watching the film—twice the typical donation rate. Arora gave a keynote at Games for Change entitled Representing the Pain of Others.

“I don’t think about it in terms of changing human behavior,” says Arora. “I am just trying to move people and get them to understand the reality.” With over fifteen years of humanitarian work under his belt, Arora has seen the difficulty of expressing the authentic reality he experienced. After coming back from Sub-Saharan Africa in 1999, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, he was searching for a way to express that despite the dire situation, “there was resilience, there’s spirit, there’s joy.” VR allowed for a more nuanced, textured feel that could give an experience while also still involving storytelling. “For me, a lot of what VR can do is for the first time take you there, it can give you the sense of presence; an ability to bear witness to things I don’t think any other medium can do, and it can do that quite directly.”

There is a scene in Clouds Over Sidra where you join the refugee’s family for a meal. Counter to how we often think of the social cause playbook—motivation through horrifying pictures or outrageous statistics—the simple dinner scene has proven powerful. “It’s very simple, but people are moved by it,” says Arora. “It would take so much for somebody to actually have that real experience… you would have to build trust, you would have to feel that they wouldn’t be freaked out. To actually see people as how they are, and feel that you are there. I think that is what gives people an exhilarating experience that only VR can give.”

Similar to the comments by Vassiliki Khonsari, Arora stressed the importance of letting the participant of the VR experience make up their own mind. “I almost want to move people out of it unexpectedly,” says Arora. “You are not being told what to feel.” This is far different from the typical social cause playbook where one may feel bombarded with data; it returns agency to the viewer to better understand an issue as opposed to feeling lectured.

Although VR experiences for social causes may lack the typical financial model of a documentary, Arora foresees a greater focus on increased donations and greater campaign engagement. “The key is to build a campaign around it…start a conversation with people.” Arora believes creators must not be seduced by the newness or wow-factor behind VR. The focus should always be on storytelling and creating a meaningful experience. In Clouds over Sidra nothing horrible really happens, yet half the people cry,” says Arora, reiterating the medium’s remarkable ability to generate empathy.

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