Virtual reality has been hailed the "ultimate empathy machine." Teachers and researchers certainly believe that the immersive VR experiences will make players empathize with the plight of others, such as that of refugees, the disabled, or other disadvantaged groups. However, as Yale Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom cautions in "It's Ridiculous to Use Virtual Reality to Empathize with Refugees," the type of empathy VR generates in players may be misleading. For one, he points out, while VR may be good at simulating environments, it doesn't replicate the psychological forces of powerlessness, despair, and oppression. A player can step out at any time and doesn't have to face a reality where the country has been torn apart by war and none of the player's relatives have made it out alive.
In fact, the player can have a level of comfort in knowing that the unpleasant situation is short-lived. Journalists who volunteered to be waterboarded reported that the experience was unpleasant, but their experience was not accompanied by imprisonment and torturers who won't stop when asked. Other times, short-term experiences give a flawed impression to players. As Dr. Arielle Michal Silverman related in "The Perils of Playing Blind: Problems with Blindness Simulation and A Better Way to Teach About Blindness," players wrongly projected their own negative feelings of suddenly becoming blind to the daily experience of living with blindness.
Of course, there have been simulations without VR or even digital applications. There have been games about blindness, such as Blindside, and games to simulate what it's like to have schizophrenia or depression. It's natural to be excited about the next big thing and the level of immersion that VR gives could lead to amazing educational experiences. VR can certainly help in depicting different countries and scenarios, but will it translate into social impact? Research is ongoing.
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.