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The VR Experience: Hacking Engagement & Empathy

As digital spaces become more personal, communicators can use the virtual realm to create a shortcut to empathy for users.

Sometimes it seems as society transitions into more digital spaces, feelings of empathy and understanding become fewer and far between as we increase the physical degrees of separation between one another. Studies show, however, that the more time people spend online and sharing digital spaces with each other, the more empathy and understanding we feel. A 2016 study found that social media use over the course of a year caused teenagers to improve both their ability to understand and share the feelings of their peers. In another study published this year, researchers found that online forums for people suffering from two unrelated illnesses (breast cancer and motor neuron disease) served as effective sources of support and increased empathy between users in these digital spaces. Somewhat unsurprisingly, it seems that the more we engage with each other online, the more empathy we develop towards one another. So it would make sense that the more engaging the platform, the more empathy it generates, and currently, there’s arguably no digital platform more engaging than that of virtual reality.

Virtual reality allows for users to interact in ways that mimic the real world; making perceived eye contact, being able to gesture and communicate to one another in real-time and even walk around with each other in a shared digital space. Users are no longer just a static picture and a display name, they are animated individuals with a unique voice and actions attributable strictly to them. While in reality users are likely by themselves wearing a VR headset and headphones alone in their home, the VR experience can transport their perception to almost anywhere imaginable with others from all around the world.

As it turns out, studies have shown that the increased engagement of virtual reality increases empathy in its users. In several studies done by Stanford over the last 15 years, it’s been shown that the more engaging the virtual reality experience, the more empathy subjects seem to feel. Whether that means using your arms to interact with your environment or moving your head to look around, both instances resulted in more positive results from subjects, and as Stanford researcher Jeremy Bailenson put it, “in VR, content that moves the body will also move the mind.”

Even for those of us who are inexperienced in the world of virtual reality, there are some case studies that show us real examples of increased empathy in an engaging digital space, such as the popular video game VR Chat. Just this last January, a video of a man reportedly having a seizure in the game went viral and gave us a glimpse at how members of a digital community react to a perceived crisis. Lo and behold, the majority of them reacted with a great deal of genuine care and understanding once they realized their fellow player was having a legitimate seizure.

Virtual reality is a proven and effective tool for generating empathy through experience and engagement. As society continues to make improvements to VR technology and change the way we think about digital spaces, we will continue to foster more and more empathy and understanding through our digital lives and chip away at the online barriers that separate us from one another.