Innocent Bystanders in Virtual Worlds

VR will only achieve social change if it’s users are forced to exercise Agency

The term Empathy Machine is haphazardly thrown around today by early adopters of VR. It’s used to reassure people, who aren’t gamer’s or tech savvy, that these clumsy headsets aren’t toys (cue flashback to Nintendo Wii) but tools with the potential to truly change the way people engage with the world and each other. The conversation usually goes like this:

In Peter Bazalgette’s book The Empathy Instinct, he celebrates the works of Chris Milk &co. as huge leaps forward in how technology can be used to bring people together rather than drive them apart. Quoting Milk’s Ted Talk in 2015, he explains Milk’s latest VR film, Clouds Over Sidra which depicts a twelve-year-old Syrian girl called Sidra living in a refugee camp:

“You’re looking around through this world… And when you’re sitting there in her room, watching her, you’re not watching it through a television screen, you’re not watching it through a window, you’re sitting there with her. When you look down, you’re sitting on the same ground that she’s sitting on. And because of that, you feel her humanity in a deeper way. You empathise with her in a deeper way.”

The paradox here is that the relationship you have with this character is as passive and asymmetrical as the relationship you might have with a character in a regular film. Yes, you are in her space (which is undoubtedly visceral) but the relationship is parasocial. You extend emotional energy, interest and time, when the other person is completely unaware of your existence. VR is almost synonymous with the word immersion, a metaphorical term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water. Yet every passive experience created in the medium is better comparable to visiting an aquarium, one of the ones where the sharks can swim overhead. You enjoy the experience, perhaps you even feel a fleeting connection with the fish, but the fact is, you remain dry, and there is a thriving Yo-sushi situated no more than 100m from the Sea Life Aquarium (London Southbank).

On Monday 9th October this year, Mark Zuckerberg unwittingly demonstrated this exact problem when he live streamed as an avatar using Facebook’s social VR tool “Spaces”. Along side Rachel Franklin (fb’s head of social VR) they visited several places, but most notably, the recently hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico. In what The Guardian branded “disaster tourism,” Zuckerberg’s grinning avatar floated over scenes of destruction as he marketed the platform’s ability to bring Franklin and himself to the same space together and make eye contact etc. The most uncomfortable moment was perhaps Franklin’s comment “You can see that we can really feel like we’re here” to which Zuckerberg continued: “This street is really flooded.” In response to the inevitable public disapproval Zuckerberg deployed the faithful ‘empathy machine’ excuse within his apology:

“One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy. My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world […] Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone offended.”

Continuing to create VR content for a passive viewer is, at best, a poor substitute for film and TV which has been continually developed and shaped since the beginning of cinema. Filmmakers have trialled and tested storytelling on screens for decades and are vastly more equipped to provide audiences the exact amount of information they need when embodying the characters on screen. This surrendering to the imaginative world is called the suspension of disbelief. Janet Murray, in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck (read this!) argues that, in film, audiences don’t just suspend a critical faculty in order to enter the fictional world; they express a creative one. People don’t suspend their disbelief so much as they actively create belief. People want to experience immersion, so focus on the world to reinforce it. The fidelity of the image, the size of the screen – or whether the story is told on a screen or not – is almost irrelevant in an audience’s immersion.

What VR does provide over film and other media to date is not immersion. VR’s true asset is agency. And agency is the only thing that can take what is (often) a voyeuristic vessel for disaster holidays into the powerful tool for social change that we have all been promised since the beginning. Immersion will come as a result of implementing the audiences capacity for agency. The content consumers of future virtual reality will not be viewers, or even visitors, but interactors or participants (whichever word sounds better I guess.)

Why Agency?

A person’s identity has less to do with what happens to them, and more to do with what they make happen. In Yu-Kai Chou’s book, Actionable Gamification, he discusses how people subconsciously aim to maintain their identities by being consistent to previous actions. This opens the potential for actual social change with VR very wide open with the use of small, incremental choices in virtual worlds that accumulate and manifest in identity change in the real world. As Chou puts it, “we value our own identities and become more consistent towards our past… our attachment to our own identities become so strong that anything connected to that identity becomes desirable to us.” The need to behave consistently with our past actions is a result of this.

In 1966, psychologists Scott Fraser and Jonathan Freeman went from door to door in an experiment where they asked California homeowners if they would agree to have a large billboard erected in their front gardens reading “DRIVE SAFE”. Predictably only 17% of people signed up. Amongst the many groups that they tested, there was one that had a 76% sign up rate, which was dramatically more than the others. But why?
Well, it turned out that the group residents were visited two weeks prior by another volunteer worker who asked them if they would display a ‘harmless three-inch-square sign’ that read: “BE A SAFE DRIVER” in their front windows. The request was easy enough and nearly everyone asked complied.

In Chou’s words “what the residents didn’t expect, was that this small act of public service would cause them to start believing they were publicly conscious people who cared about drivers in the neighbourhood.” When asked two weeks later to erect the larger sign, they were more likely to be consistent with their new publicly conscious self-images, and agree.

Learning from this, Virtual Reality content producers should begin to think of their experiences as opportunities to host these “three-inch-squares” in the guise of simple achievable actions to promote social change that people will be consistent to in the real world.

I’ll leave you with this thought:

“Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.” – J.P.Sartre

The Empathy Machine may well exist in the near future. But without agency, users will stand-by in life as they were permitted to in the virtual. VR is a medium for people to make inconsequential decisions in a safe environment, so that when they resurface in the real world something remains with them, guiding them to care more, understand more… It’s not enough to just see the flood. Social awareness is not social change until people step up and take action.


Thanks for reading! This is the first of many articles and any feedback both on the thoughts expressed and the way they were expressed will really help me improve and make better, more engaging content.

What are your thoughts on implementing agency in VR?

Is agency enough to complete the empathy machine, or is something else missing?

Please get in touch with any ideas, thoughts etc.