#18ThingsVRMightBe: Moral Education

Children Can Learn Right and Wrong By Living It

An advantage of virtual reality over other experiential platforms is that it immerses the user into a new world. It is, or at least can be, a highly visceral experience. In a previous post I mentioned how, at an Oculus presentation, they showed a video of a woman using a Rift cowering in a corner while she saw a t-rex approach her. Immersive experiences are for more than causing fright though. You can also use them for education.

There’s a common understanding that you can talk about what you might do in a situation for as long as you want, but you won’t actually know until you are in that situation. Imagine this scenario:

You have a significant other and two kids. Your house burned down a week ago. You were just laid off today. Your savings amounts to no more than $1.20. You know your family will starve tonight. As you’re walking through an outdoor market, you see a loaf of bread and some fruit.
Do you steal the food for your family?

This scenario is beyond many of our experiences and hard for us to imagine. My description helps a bit, but it’s short. Should I have written a novella, you’d have a better idea because you’d become immersed in the writing. In VR, you could go beyond the novella-level experience.

Who needs to learn about moral scenarios? Kids.

In my elementary school, we had posters on the walls that said things like “Kindness”, “Compassion”, “Empathy”, and the like. It was expected that we read these posters and eventually let these principles soak into our character-being. On occasion, we’d also have lessons on these virtues. However they seemed largely ineffectual. In 2010, a study by the US Department of Education found the same thing.

I have a possible new approach.

Let’s place kids into virtual reality simulations that puts them through a series of educational moral situations.

Instead of talking about morals or character principles in lectures, give kids visceral experiences in a safe place. They could be presented with scenarios, allowed to make a series of choices, and then be able to discuss why they did what at the end. You could even hold group discussions around the choices “Subject #2” made versus “Subject #7” (keeping participants anonymous.

There already exist a multitude of role-playing games that allow players to choose their own path between right and wrong. However, these often pail in comparison to actual moral quandaries. Sure, if I murder a bystander I’m more evil. But, am I good or evil if I accidentally kill someone while trying to kill someone much more dangerous? Or, am I good or evil if I temporarily work with an enemy?

These are stickier questions which don’t lend themselves to the usual video game binary. I think that if kids, or even adults for that mater, could create choices in a sufficiently simulated world and then talk about their choices when they step back into the real world, they would be able to build up a better understanding of their ethical and meta-ethical stances.