Does Empathy exist in Virtual Reality?

A few days ago, a story went around about modder Joseph Delgado, who built a Grand Theft Auto: V for use in VR. Shown below is the scene he posted.

via Joseph Delgado

After playing the game in VR, he posted the following:

“I feel horrible about making this. You actually feel guilty. My mouth dropped the first time I shot someone in my GTA: V VR setup…”

So what is it about playing out this scenario in VR that makes it different than playing in third person through an avatar?

Our Brains have evolved to feel Empathy for others

Humans are hardwired by evolution to feel empathy. There is a system in our brains, discovered in the 1990s called the Mirror Neuron System. In a nutshell, this system ties the actions of others to ourselves. When we see someone performing an action, the same part of our brains that fires when we perform that action ourselves fires, just by watching others. Research has shown this to be true in monkeys and when human observe robot hands.

This is the system that allows humans to mirror the motions of other humans and related mammals. It’s existence has many implications. One area of research has focused over the years on learning tasks involving the human body such as copying actions we see performed.

Other areas of research involve Autism spectrum disorders as a means to explain the emotional disconnect that some patients display towards other people. Their mirrors misaligned, or broken in some cases.

A more important implication is that Mirror Neurons play an important role in empathy. How we perceive action, intention and even injury. You know that feeling you get when you see someone injured on a YouTube video and cringe? That is your brain instinctually empathizing with a fellow member of your species. Their pain is your pain.

This ability to relate to other people and other non-human primates plays a vital role in feeling empathy, and by extension building communities and cooperation within those communities. It is at the heart of what makes humans and other non-human primates work together, help each other and learn from each other.

Now, back to Gaming.

For the last almost 40 years, we have played games through a disconnected lens.

via Reddit

In the scene above, an avatar controlled by a human is committing terrible acts of violence against seemingly scared people, who are running away from the scene.

As players, we are disconnected from this scene in four ways that tell us about the reality we are experiencing.

The Avatar Lens.

This gives us a visual representation of a character on screen, one that we can design to look like us, or is predefined as looking nothing like us

We are watching an individual from the outside, who is clearly not us commit these acts of violence.

The Uncanny Valley Lens

Current-gen video games still aren’t on par with real world imagery, so it’s easy for us to say “yeah, that’s just a game” based on the look of the environments, textures, lighting, shading and even sounds.

The Metaphorical Control Lens

We are also disconnected from this act of violence because we are not there, not holding that gun, but instead holding a controller, pressing buttons and moving analog sticks in a metaphorical way, to make our avatar perform these actions.

The Environmental Context Lens

Lastly, most games we play are on a screen, and we can see the wider context of our living room, our computer room or our bedroom when we play. We can also hear the action coming from the TV, not from the environment. The TV is screaming, not the person in the room with us. Through this lens, we can easily place the game in the context of our real world experiences and come to a quick judgement: this is not real.

What about FPS (First Person Shooters) though?

These sorts of games are closer to the real thing, but still have a disconnect. Though we are seeing the world through the eyes of the character, the only Lens that doesn’t apply here is the Avatar Lens.

We are not holding the hammer as seen in the image below. We are not pulling a trigger.

Battlefield Hardline via GrimReaperGamers

This genre has even extended to filmmaking as seen below in which we are passive watchers through the eyes of another’s experience.

via Gizmodo

Virtual Reality Games

In this instance, there is no TV, no outside world context through which we frame the events we see and hear. Those lenses are starting to disappear As technology evolves, we won’t need a controller to metaphorically perform the actions we see, we will see and hear these experiences through our own eyes and ears and environments and characters in those environments wil start to look more realistic.

Soon we will be able to hold a gun, pull a trigger, and drive a car, with those actions affecting people we can see and hear within these environments.

Image via Leapmotion

Current technologies don’t allow us to feel the gun in our hands or the steering wheel, or the effect of gravity as we move though environments, and thankfully this technology remains a ways off. This means we are still disconnected from what we see and do, but much less than we have been since the first Video Game experiences were created.

So what does all this mean?

The technology involved in gaming has always evolved, but now in order to make experiences that everyone will enjoy, developers need to be aware of empathy and the role it plays in our experiences.

As VR technologies allow for more complex and realistic interactions, this issue will no doubt come up frequently.

As Mr. Delgado’s reaction has shown above, violence in games may not translate well to VR. Not because it’s not technically possible to show or participate in scenes of mass shootings or driving over strangers on the street, but because our own humanity will make these experiences unenjoyable and possibly emotionally damaging to the majority of gamers.

Yes there will be some that find the novelty of these experiences fun, but as the Stanford Prison Experiment showed us 45 years ago, even simulated environments can have lasting effects on who we are and how we perceive ourselves.

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