The Hazards of Building an Empathy Game for VR

Virtual reality seems like an incredible playing field for creators who want to put their players in someone else’s shoes. After all, you can almost literally walk in someone’s footsteps in VR, seeing what they see, experiencing what they experience. Given that VR can be so powerful and affecting, though, it’s worth taking a moment to consider whether your plans for a VR empathy experience are safe for your players and ethical in design.

iThrive Games knows about building empathy — it collaborates with studios to make games for teens designed to support their social and emotional growth and help them practice habits like empathy. In a recent article, iThrive Games and Kelli Dunlap, PsyD, explored some of the trickier issues of making empathy games for virtual reality.

One of their first points? Putting someone in a distressing situation isn’t the same as cultivating empathy:

Just because you can drop someone into the thick of (simulated) loss, fear, pain, and chaos using VR, it doesn’t mean you should. When you immerse players in a violent, intensely emotional, or graphic event that feels real, it’s possible you’ll cause them distress or trauma. Immediate reactions to trauma include shock and denial, meaning that a person shuts down and disconnects emotionally. Isn’t that precisely the opposite of what we’d want an empathy game to do — engage and connect people?

Playing a game is different from how we engage with other media. As game developer Lindsay Grace likes to say: “Readers read, viewers watch, and players do.” VR technology adds to this “doing” a deep level of immersion, complicity, and embodiment — the sometimes unsettling sense that you’re really there in the thing you’re doing. We don’t yet know how psychologically powerful that immersion might be.

iThrive puts forth three vital questions to ask when designing a game meant to cultivate empathy:

1) Who are my players? Often, creating a game means designing for as wide an audience as possible — but that isn’t practical if you want to create a serious game or empathy game. Knowing who your players are and involving them in your design process, will help you create an experience that will actually benefit those players.

2) What do I really want my players to do? To be successful, empathy games need to be created with clear goals in mind. iThrive recommends that designers lay out their reasons for creating an empathy game before starting a project, and revisit those reasons consistently throughout the development process.

3) What does the science say? Good intentions aren’t enough to create empathy — not alone. Understanding how empathy works and how to recognize and measure your game’s impact on players is a mandatory step. Often, this means expanding your perspective. As iThrive points out, “games intended to have some positive social impact can only benefit from a multidisciplinary design team that represents a range of likely perspectives and responses.”

iThrive has a lot more insight to share, so read on.

VentureBeat also addressed the issue of ethical VR design recently, highlighting some potential dangers of VR. These include desensitization, social isolation and psychiatric risks.

It’s a good reminder that playing with design intended to change people for the better means risking changing them for the worse — something we shouldn’t take on lightly.

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