Empathy & Virtual Reality

Author Fabian Vetter


A crucial factor in the success of any campaign film is the intensity of the empathy the film can evoke between the audience and a person linked to a cause. For a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), this is even more important, in order to change the audience’s awareness and ultimately, instigate social change.

The concept of empathy is usually associated with an inter-human connection – how we relate to each other – but we can also think of empathy as a connection between humans and all other life forms on earth. The British philosopher Roman Krznaric argues that empathy is the primary means of creating social change. According to him, empathy is “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions”.

In his book Empathy, Krznaric further explains how people can become more empathic and describes the six habits highly empathetic people have. One of these he calls ‘the ability to travel in an armchair’, meaning that films “…have the ability to take us on imaginative journeys into lives that are profoundly unlike our own and also to inspire empathic acts on the behalf of others once we have put down the novel or left the cinema.”

One tool that enables us to travel in such an armchair, and as a result promote empathy in an audience, is Virtual Reality (VR). Originally evolved from stereoscopic photography, VR enables us to engage with the characters and their surroundings within a radius of 360°. In short, it enables us to visually move around the environment in which the story takes place and to see what the protagonist sees. In a metaphoric sense, it allows us to step into their shoes.

An interesting example of VR for social change comes from director and VR pioneer Chris Milk, who, on behalf of the United Nations, produced the VR-documentary Clouds Over Sidra, the story of a refugee girl and her family, who live in the world’s largest refugee camp in Jordan. The video was shown to decision-makers at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to encourage them to empathise with refugees and influence their political decisions on this important issue. According to Milk, this approach was highly effective and successful, resulting in a deeper collaboration with the United Nations and various NGOs. Chris Milk who is also the founder and CEO of Within, a production company focusing on VR storytelling, actually calls VR the “Empathy Machine”.

Since the release of Clouds Over Sidra in 2015, VR is becoming more and more popular as an empathetic media, and a large number of NGOs are giving VR a try as a method to promote their mission and cause. WaterAid, an organisation that provides clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene to poorer countries, tried to raise awareness about the aftermath of the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal with its VR documentary AfterShock. This told the story of the life and work of a local plumber who tries to provide fresh and clean water to his community, under the most challenging of circumstances.

One of the biggest players in the third sector, Greenpeace, also uses VR to give their existing and future supporters insights into their work. In support of their #EndOceanPlastics campaign, Greenpeace UK captured and shared a short VR film from a scientific expedition they led to measure the impact of plastic on marine wildlife in Scotland.

VR will never fully replace a real-world encounter with another person, or the experience of entering a real place. However, used wisely within the realm of campaigning for social change, it has the potential to bring us closer together and to have a positive effect on people’s lives in the real world.

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