At Work

Why Virtual Reality Might be Our Best Shot at Restoring Human Empathy

By: Michael McQueen

In a world of increasing polarisation, empathy stands out as a virtue that restores humanity to conversations and is persuasively powerful enough to change even the firmest of opinions.

But, few things evoke empathy as poignantly as first-hand experience.

I vividly remember a simulated experience that forever changed my perspective on the plight of refugees. A few years ago, my family and I spent a few weeks volunteering at an aid agency in Hong Kong called Crossroads. While Crossroads’ core work is the shipment of essential aid and materials to impoverished people around the globe, they also have a commitment to education and community engagement.

One of the initiatives they had recently launched was a refugee simulation in which participants would get a vivid sense what it was like to face the impossibly dreadful decisions those fleeing war and strife around the world face every day.

I knew full-well how the simulation was going to function before it began – part of the work we’d done as volunteers was to install the electrical wiring and paint the scene panels for the various rooms that participants would go through.

But on the evening of the first live simulation, nothing could have prepared my family and I for what we were about to experience. We were gathered in huddled groups, assigned names, stories and identifies before the room dramatically went black and the sound of gun shots rang out. A few second later the doors burst open and ‘armed’ soldiers entered the room with helmet torches and shouts in foreign languages.

Families and loved ones were separated. Bribes were offered. Our documentation and passports -along with my wristwatch – were confiscated, food was taken from us and pressure was applied to perform sexual acts for the guards in return for special treatment.

Naturally, none of this was real and the guards were the very Crossroads employees we’d been working alongside all week. But that hardly mattered. Within a few minutes, we were all transported into the world of a confused, terrified and victimised refugee with few options and even less power.

Virtual Reality – Virtually Real

Woman with Virtual Reality Headset
Photo: By Sophia Sideri on Unsplash

After 45 minutes which felt like many hours, the lights were switched on, the soldiers removed their headgear and their weapons and we all gathered for a debrief.

Even now I vividly remember the sense of relief and terror that lingered in the group even as cups of tea and supper were handed out by the very guards who had been shouting at us moments before. It probably took 20 minutes before any sense of normality returned to the group as we reflected on the experience and what it had felt like.

Although this experience was a far cry from the reality faced by genuine refugees, it was instrumental in fostering in me a deeper sense of empathy for their plight. In some miniscule way, I had been given a taste of the kinds of things they face.

The power of experience is undeniable, but first-hand experience is naturally a difficult thing to offer people. However, with the technology that we now have at our disposal, we have a greater ability to offer this than ever before.

Virtual reality has been used widely across dozens of industries, most notably, gaming. There is a growing acknowledgment now, though, of its powers of persuasion in the political realm, given its capacity to offer immersive experiences.

Refugee Experience Up Close

A case in point is the 2015 VR documentary Clouds Over Sidra which was geared towards generating empathy with Syrian refugees. The 360-degree documentary puts viewers or ‘experiencers’ in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan and allows them to experience a day in the life of a 12-year-old girl named Sindra. Sindra has been living the camp for 18 months with thousands of other refugees.

The film’s producer Chris Milk suggests that virtual reality is unparalleled in its persuasive potential because it “connects humans to other humans in a profound way I’ve never before seen in any other form of media, and it can change people’s perception of each other… That is why I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world.”[1] As an indication of just how effective it was, the documentary helped raise $3.2 billion to end the crisis – more than doubling UNICEF’s annual fundraising haul.[2]

While VR is a powerful way to raise awareness of global and societal issues, it is just as effective at an interpersonal level. Performance artist Philippe Bertrand offers a potent example of this with a VR experience he developed called The Machine to Be Another. This initiative is geared at helping people see the world through eyes very different to their own – be they the eyes of a child, a close friend or someone with a disability. In his own words, Bertrand says that while VR technology is disorientating, “Afterwards, you now know someone in an intimate way that helps you connect.”

Using VR to Engender Respect

More than just an interesting concept, Bertrand quickly attracted the attention of psychologists, neuroscientists, and researchers around the world who immediately saw its potential to “explore issues like mutual respect, gender identity, physical limitations and immigration.”[3]

Another initiative developed by writer and director Jane Gauntlett is achieving precisely this aim. Called In My Shoes, Gauntlett’s project uses VR to give users a first-hand experience of what it’s like to live with epilepsy. Writing for The Guardian, technology journalist Joanna Goodman suggests that VR tools like this are uniquely powerful because they “create deep empathy by putting the individual at the centre of every experience.”[4]

Emerging technology is often snubbed as gimmicky, or feared for its threat to jobs and humanity. However, when used in ways such as these, emerging technology like VR offers hope for the restoration of humanity and the ability to change minds by means of compassion rather than confrontation. We would all benefit from more empathy – VR might be the thing to help us get there.


Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

Feature image: Photo by Remy Gieling on Unsplash

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