You are standing on a street in Syria when suddenly an explosion is heard, body parts are flying everywhere and you run for cover. You’re in Gaza, experiencing the reality of a Palestinian woman who has lost her sons in an Israel Defense Forces attack. You’re in Nepal, spending a few hours alongside a teenage girl who’s trying to rehabilitate her life following the earthquake. You’re standing in line with homeless people in Los Angeles. You’re a black man. You’re a woman who’s being subjected to a sexual attack. Then you take off the virtual reality goggles.
A growing group of artists, social activists and human rights organizations maintain that virtual reality technology, which allows the creation of a environment using pictures and sound, can save the world – or at least improve it.
In recent years, dozens of projects have allowed the viewer – or more accurately, the participant – to experience events in a more intimate way than ever. This closeness, they say, strengthens empathy for other people. If we take someone and send him to see and hear the war in Syria up close, he will feel as if he’s really there and will care more. If we put a white man in a black man’s body, he’ll become slightly less racist.
Chris Milk, director and CEO of the virtual-reality film production company Within and one of the outstanding creators in the field, calls VR an “empathy machine.” Milk, whom the magazine Variety dubbed “the VR guru,” became famous from directing clips for Kanye West, Beck, Arcade Fire and U2. In 2015 he collaborated with the United Nations in producing “Clouds Over Sidra,” a VR project that follows the life of a 12-year-old Syrian girl living in a refugee camp in Jordan. Viewers wearing the VR goggles get to examine the refugee camp at a 360-degree angle. Milk maintains that when we “sit” with the girl in her room, and don’t see her through a television screen, we feel her humanity and empathize more deeply with her.
The UN was surprised to learn that at a fundraising event for Syria held in Kuwait where “Clouds Over Sidra” was screened, $3.8 billion was raised – almost twice as much as expected and $1.2 billion more than the previous year. Since then the UN has produced a number of additional VR documentary films for a project called UNVR, with the aim of increasing awareness of disaster-struck areas of the world.
Among other things, if you own VR goggles you can already download and watch “Beyond the Lake,” about the life of Burundian refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “Waves of Grace” about a women struggling to survive in ebola-infested Liberia, and “Ground Beneath Her” about the 2015 Earthquake in Nepal.
Another UNVR project screened last March in the Steamer festival for interactive cinema and virtual reality in the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv. The project, “My Mother’s Wing,” takes the participant to Gaza, to be close-in witnesses to the day of a Palestinian mother struggling with the effects of Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s summer 2014 war in the Strip.
Amnesty International has also used VR to bring in potential donors, and reported a 16 percent rise in donations for humanitarian support in Syria among donors who participated in the VR project on the civil war there. Last month, Milk presented his VR clips at a TED conference to 1,200 viewers simultaneously, in what he says was the largest group viewership in the history of VR.
The BBC has also jumped on the VR-clip bandwagon, last month releasing “We Wait,” a project based on testimonies of refugees from Syria who are accompanied on their treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe in a rickety rubber dinghy. Another notable creator in this field is the journalist and documentary director Nonny de la Peña, a pioneer of “immersive journalism,” which employs VR goggles and which he showcased in his 2012 production “Hunger in Los Angeles,” which reenacts the true story of a man’s collapse in a long line of homeless people waiting for food handouts.
Further along, de la Peña developed the “Syria Project” in which she reenacted a terror attack in a Syrian street market with frightening graphics, including flying body parts and a ringing in the ears. Another project, “Kiya,” deals with violence within the family in which two black sisters try to save the third sister from her gun-wielding partner.
Talking with a Palestinian avatar
Unlike the artists, scientists researching the effect of virtual reality on the brain and on behavior admit that while there is potential for bringing about long-term change in behavior, the road to that goal is long, if not extremely so.
The head of the Advanced Virtuality Lab at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Dr. Doron Friedman, researched the effect of VR encounters on behavior, together with Dr. Béatrice Hasler. The two created a virtual reality world that allows users to meet a Palestinian spiritualist called Jamil, and to talk with him. A little bit of manipulation was done for one group of participants: When they sat down to talk with an avatar called “Jamil,” he began to impersonate their body language. Friedman and Hasler found that members of this group showed more empathy toward the avatar than did the other participants. However, the study found no change in stance regarding Palestinians in general. According to Friedman, this result shows that VR certainly allows a base for empathy, but not to such an extent that it will affect the general population.
Another type of project that seeking to increase empathy allows the participant to enter the other’s shoes in a virtual way, to view the world through his eyes. The creators of these projects maintain that being in another person’s body, even if for a short time, increases empathy toward him.
Friedman explains that virtual reality allows for the illusion whereby our brain believes that the avatar is ours, and that the body that represents us in virtual reality is ours. This illusion is called “body ownership.”
Even though we know that it’s not our body, the visual and sensory experience is stronger than this knowledge.
He adds that a series of studies shows that this experience affects basic irrational mechanisms in the brain, like fear and pulse rate, which create the illusion that you are someone else. “The very fact that I see my body in VR and give commands to my hand and it moves – that’s enough,” he says.
Friedman says studies showed that the experience of being in another’s body causes immediate psychological effects, and if we were put in a certain kind of body, we would be inclined to adopt behavioral patterns that are identified with it. “The second generation of research studies showed that if we put an adult in a child’s body, he acts more ‘childishly.’ If we put someone in a body identified more with the image of a musician, he learns to play the drums quicker.”
Beyond that, studies have shown that the virtual body can affect unconscious racism, and when white people are “put into” a black avatar, there’s an immediate drop in their unconscious racist prejudice against blacks.
A month ago a ground-breaking study by Barcelona University’s Prof. Mel Slater, one of the world’s leading researchers of virtual reality, checked whether regular training in illusory ownership of a body can lead to a permanent change in behavior, which remains over time. Slater showed that the drop in unconscious racism remains for at least a week after the experiment, and strengthens with more exposures.
In need of justice, not empathy
But there are those who maintain otherwise. According to Robert Yang, a game programmer and lecturer at New York University, a large part of the VR genre more resembles empathetic tourism. He says it is a condescending medium, and adds that it is embarrassing to claim that you cannot feel empathy toward someone until you put on the VR goggles for five minutes.
Yang refers to a 2015 study published in Psychology Today which checked whether a game that conceptualizes situations of poverty does indeed increase empathy toward the poor. The study showed that the game actually lowers empathy toward the poor, because most of the players concluded that poverty is the result of making poor choices rather than fate.
And even if these projects do indeed manage to increase humanity’s empathy, who said that empathy is what the world needs to become better? A number of studies carried out in recent years show that empathy comes with a price – it could turn into a tool in the hands of cynical politicians. For example, it was found that if the subject of the study was more apt to empathize with a given person, he also was more likely to support causing suffering to whoever harmed that person.
There’s no shortage of examples of politicians who know how to exploit this sentiment and manipulate it according to their political agenda. When President-elect Donald Trump wanted to awaken deep feelings against migrants, he recounted at his election rallies about “Kate,” (he never revealed her surname), a young woman murdered in San Francisco by an illegal immigrant from Mexico.
The researchers Rane Willerslev and Nils Ole Bubandt from Aarhus University in Denmark coined the term “tactical empathy,” showing how empathy is morally ambivalent: It allows better acquaintance with other people, which also increases the chances of harming him.
Other opponents of VR as a producer of empathy say it does not let users experience the lives of other people, but is instead a narcissistic, even racist tool that allows the white man to feel a catharsis at the expense of another’s person’s body.
“We need more justice, not empathy,” Wendy H.K. Chun, a new-media theorist and professor of modern culture at Brown University, said recently at a virtual reality conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Chun explained that when a white person enters the body of a black avatar, he turns this avatar into an object that has to be conquered. According to her, virtual reality will not lead to the political activism that the world really needs. Or, as she put it, “If you’re standing in someone else’s shoes you took their shoes.”