The DHC/ART Education team collaborated with the Phi Centre on a series inspired by the exhibition Embodied Narrative: Sensory Stories of the Digital Age.

Can virtual reality foster empathy?

Virtual reality (VR) is currently being experimented with as a tool to foster empathy, which is defined as “the feeling that you understand and share another person's experiences and emotions”. In particular, the United Nations is developing several VR works to help increase donations for people impacted by humanitarian crises. Gabo Arora, a creative director working with the United Nations, expressed that,“In some ways, it’s only through new media that we can actually get these issues out there.” VR can be shaped to “really [speak] to the ‘we the people’ notion in the UN’s charter…. It’s about listening, understanding, and bringing people’s voices into decision-making processes all over the world." Arora claims that, this technology offers “the ability to really take part in a story that usually your are only a passive spectator [in], and it’s giving you the possibility to walk in another person’s shoes, understand what they live, see what their world is like and actually get the sensation of feeling like [you are there].” This appears to be an admirable and welcomed objective given that televised and photographed depictions of crises are no longer impacting people with the same intensity as they have in the past. Humanitarian relief organizations are understandably challenged to find ways to break through the emotional numbness and incite people to help.

Ethical implications

In parallel to discussion about promoting VR as a tool for empathy, the ethical implications of this practice are being questioned. For example, what are the psychological impacts of embodied or multisensory storytelling when deep emotional response is provoked? Christopher Fabian, the co-lead of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, explains that "a lot of people have a very emotional reaction to [watching VR]. I can’t even count the number of times someone has taken off the headset and the goggles are filled with tears." Before entering into these stories, are viewers prepared well for the emotional turbulence they may encounter? What happens after headset is removed? Are their people there to care for the viewers who would benefit from discussion or need support to express their reactions? Or, are emotions stifled by the embarrassment of being in public? Furthermore, how are people guided towards transforming their embodied reactions into helpful action for others – if this indeed the goal? [Editor's note: The education team who developed pedagogical content for Embodied Narrative : Sensory Stories of the Digital Age exhibition at Phi Centre offered training to exhibition attendants to help prepare helpful responses to visitors who react strongly to the works. During the first few weeks of the exhibition, feedback from visitors has been positive and the attendants’ attentiveness has been well appreciated.]

These questions are particularly relevant for VR works such as Clouds Over Sidra, which is a first-person narrative from the perspective of a Syrian girl who lives in a refugee camp in Jordan, as well as Waves of Grace, a first-person narrative from the perspective of a survivor of the Ebola outbreak that started in Liberia and the surrounding region in 2014. Both works, co-directed by Gabo Arora and Chris Milk, address survival and resilience in the face of traumatizing experiences (and both were part of the inaugural programming of the Phi Centre’s Virtual Reality Garden.)

Ethical considerations about how viewers are impacted are particularly pertinent to producers and directors, who are shaping VR to convey messages. Tom Kent, the deputy managing editor and standards editor of the Associated Press, outlined an ethics code that guides directors and/or producers to be transparent with the intention of their work and, more specifically, to indicate how they might have guided or manipulated the story to generate emotional response. In his article titled, An Ethical Reality Check for Virtual Reality Journalism, Kent states:

“Clearly, journalism’s job is to bring human drama alive for distant audiences. But creating empathy is a goal beyond just telling a story. If the ultimate aim is to create emotion, a journalist could be tempted to omit balancing or inconvenient information that could interfere with the desired emotional effect.

In traditional media, too, the desire to paint a cause or a person in sympathetic tones can conflict with impartial, hard-headed reporting. But the potential for empathy is even greater in the VR world, since viewers can bond far more easily with a 3-D character they’re practically touching. Music can also be used to evoke specific emotions among VR viewers. VR producers would do well to make clear to their audiences what the fundamental goal of their journalism is.”

In the name of fostering empathy, are VR directors perhaps compromising journalistic standards? Similar questions are raised by documentary filmmakers and ethnographers (amongst many others) who, as a professional practice, reflect on the complexity of the authoritative voice, emotional manipulation through use of audio-visual content such as music, and the risks of inadvertently facilitating voyeurism. For example, since VR viewers are often limited in their agency while watching the works, it can be disturbing to feel like “a hovering ghost. You see what the camera sees, [but] no one else can see you.” As Scott Stein writes for CNET magazine, “the experience is pure isolation.” Or, as Tom Kent explains, “there’s also the question of whether VR representations of sufferings can trivialize victims’ experiences, reducing them to just another diversion a viewer can dip into for a few minutes. When the viewer puts the goggles back on the shelf, is the horror of scene neatly put away in his or her mind?” In other words, is it realistic to claim that capsule-like portrayals of another person’s life can actually lead to enduring empathy? And do we compromise the integrity of the subject’s lived reality in the process of trying?

Offering insight versus fostering empathy

While I find this debate about VR’s ability to foster empathy critical to the medium’s evolution, I don’t think it is possible to “walk in somebody else’s shoes” by entering into a mediatized and highly produced version of their life. We, the viewer/listener, are still merely spectators who are, at best, offered insight from our safe and calm distance. That said, this insight can certainly be emotionally provocative, powerful, and meaningful. By turning towards generating insight as the objective, rather that fostering empathy, the point of departure embraces and acknowledges that another person’s lived reality is too complex to truly understand through VR. While providing portals of insight may contribute to raising awareness, cultural differences and the privilege of distance should be recognized openly as factors that may inhibit deeper understanding. In this way, bridges between people can be still be formed, but emotional reactions would not be misconstrued as true empathy.

The potential of how insight is encouraged through VR is exemplified by Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, currently exhibited at the Phi Centre in the context of Embodied Narrative: Sensory Stories of the Digital Age. Co-created by Arnaud Colinart, Amaury La Burthe, Peter Middleton, and James Spinney, Notes on Blindness is inspired by the life of theologian John Hull, who started to lose his sight at age forty-five and finally lost traces of light sensation three years later. He began keeping a diary on audio-cassette about his journey into blindness and eventually recorded over sixteen hours of material – “a unique testimony of loss, rebirth and renewal, which excavates the interior world of blindness.” Excerpts from his original recordings serve as the narrative and his voice is accompanied by sparsely animated visual content. For example, each chapter features a version of evaporating or shifting light particles that evoke the process of sight loss while honouring the beauty of Hull’s increasingly intimate relationship to sound and echolocation. Comprising six chapters which total nearly thirty minutes (unusually long for a VR work yet consistently compelling), we quickly become immersed in John Hull’s observations and epiphanies. Through various opportunities to activate sound, light and movement, the “viewer-listener” is also invited to interact with Hull’s story and the world around him.

John Hull wrote several books and, in his words, dedicated his life work build bridges between the world inhabited by the sighted and that of the blind. He writes, “in seeking to overcome that abyss I've emphasized the uniqueness of the blind condition – blindness is a world. I've also sought to show that it's one of a number of human worlds. That sight is also a world. And that to gain our full humanity, blind people and sighted people need each other." In consideration of Hull’s commitment to building connections, the producers of Notes on Blindness employ the visual content in intentional and poetically purposeful ways. It is there to engage and guide the“viewer-listener” into John Hull’s story. I appreciate the use of sight sense in this story because it respectfully reinforces that, as John Hull explains, it is impossible for a sighted person to truly understand the experience of being blind: “Of all the major disabilities, blindness is perhaps the easiest to simulate, but the most difficult to really comprehend. At first sight, it might seem to be sufficient to close one's eyes. However, when you, a sighted person, close your eyes, do not imagine that what you see is comparable to what a blind person sees. After all, behind your closed eyelids you still have the brain of a sighted person, and your brain is full of the images, colours, shapes, movements and faces of the things and people around you, which you know are still there, and which you can recapture the moment you open your eyes.”

Likewise, I would extend a similar logic to the differences between a person who, for example, fled their home as a refugee and another who has never experienced such immense vulnerability. Being a refugee is impossible to understand through simulation, no matter how multi-sensorial and embodied the media may be. That said the viewer’s previous personal experience with profound loss or fear will certainly infuse their reception of a VR work. The resulting emotional reactions can quite legitimately generate a sense of care for the people in the story. However, is it justifiable to claim empathy for extreme displacement after learning about it for five minutes while sitting in a safe and comfortable space? This notion becomes particularly questionable if we experience several VR works within an exhibition context where various new media productions are being showcased. In our legitimate enthusiasm to experiment with interaction and immersion, we should be wary of reasserting privilege by sampling suffering, fetishizing otherness, or condoning/participating in cultural objectification.

I welcome more discussion about VR’s current abilities to foster insight rather than empathy. While it is subtle, this shift could be useful for eschewing trivialization and voyeurism while still enabling new media to serve in our aspirations to increase awareness and compassion.

Recommended viewing: A rendition of John Hull’s story is also available in short film format titled Notes on Blindness.

Article by Pohanna Pyne Feinberg (DHC/ART Education)

Photo credit: Martine Lavoie (cover)

Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness is part of the Embodied Narrative: Sensory Stories of the Digital Age exhibition, at the Phi Centre until August 21.

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