Representation and Embodiment in Virtual Reality

When you slip on those VR goggles, who do you become?

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?

An ocean of digital ink has been spilled on the subject of race, gender, and representation in video games. (You'll find a heaping helping at Critical-Distance and also here and here and here and, well, you get the idea.). Diversity in the media is important. It’s why pictures like the one below make me smile. There were times as a kid when I wanted so desperately to be white. It’s a moment of shame shared among many people of color, but it's understandable. Beauty, heroics, and happy endings belonged to the white characters of film and television, and at some unknown early age, I, like most people, learned to default even literary characters into whiteness.

The tendency to default to the white norm is the representation problem that demands extra vigilance on the part of VR game designers. I don’t mean just the visual representation of the in-game character either. Creations like the "Gender Swap Experiment" could absolutely explore the idea of embodying another non-normative human experience, but many video games skip the idea of modeling the player in any meaningful way. Or, if they do, it models a pair of non-descript legs or white hands. Even if, say, a VR game modeled the player character's hands black from a first-person perspective, it’s easy to fade back into the default. In VR, your eyes are always your own.

Even at a young age, looking in a mirror was a reminder of my non-whiteness. It reminded me how others saw me. The experience of being black or brown or trans or a woman or whatever is a lived social experience. In many ways, it is constructed through your interactions with others, but eventually such external experiences are internalized. It is the heart of what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “double consciousness” in The Souls of Black Folks, the act of “looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” When you slip on those VR goggles, who do you become? I believe, with no other indicators, you become yourself, or worse, the default non-descript white male already so common in games.

Without a top-down view of your avatar in virtual reality, only the reaction of in-game characters can help players embody someone else. That is where we can find hope for representation and empathy building in virtual reality. Putting you, say, into a refugee camp in VR is not enough -- that can too easily cross into uncomfortable disaster tourism. Gawking at the suffering of others in virtual reality does not magically create empathy. Instead, to embody another, even for a moment, demands that you are treated as such. It’s not enough to explore a refugee camp from a first-person perspective. You should be treated as a refugee.

So, how does one treat a virtual reality player like a person of color or like a woman or like any other class of underrepresented people? That’s a difficult question, but one game designers should ask themselves if they hope to foster empathy and diversity in virtual reality.

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