I had a short twitter conversation with a former colleague of mine today about the potential benefits of virtual reality for creating and amplifying empathy. The ability to transport a player in a first-person perspective into a wholly alien experience is certainly an excellent opportunity to engage them in empathy building. Last year, Josh Constantine of Tech Crunch went so far as to call virtual reality an “Empathy Machine”, and designers in the social impact and journalism space are already playing around with a variety of game concepts. The Space quoted Amnesty International Innovation’s Manager Reuven Steains describing virtual reality as “a portal from the streets of London to the streets of Aleppo.” There is a unique opportunity for fostering compassion in VR.
On the other hand, I find myself cautious when it comes to the design of embodiment in virtual space. When you slip on an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, who do you become? What affordances do these experiences signal to you as to how to behave as this virtual being? What does it mean to be brown or a woman in virtual reality? What does it mean to be brown?