Can Virtual Reality become an empathy-driving tool in development?

Photo: Z. Amanullah

In 2018, The Open University partnered with a virtual reality developer company, academics, as well as a think tank to create ‘Virtual Inclusion: Tackling Hate and Extremism Using Virtual Technology’. The goal of the project was to combat extremism among vulnerable young people and to ‘allow young person to experience life in someone else’s shoes.’ The project consisted of three virtual scenarios, covering exclusion by language, culture and by race. A UK-based charity The Challenge Network came out with a different interactive game called ‘On the Surface’ in which players take the role of a young person from a different background and help the character make choices along the way.

Both of the experiences introduced will reveal the users some of the challenges and decisions that young people can face in their daily lives. Albeit slightly different concept, The Challenge Network’s interactive story has the same core as The Open University’s VR tool: allow young people ‘to walk in someone else’s shoes’, mainly of those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The goal of both projects is to have better understanding of the circumstances other people live in, and that way break down barriers. As The Open University and Demos note, their project was piloted to create empathy among young people, by allowing them to experience someone’s, often challenging, life different to theirs. Therefore, eventually the goal of both examples is to create more integrated communities.

Virtual Reality as a tool to create empathy has not only been used on a community level, but also more in international development sector. The large development platforms like Bond and Devex have talked about VR over few years now, which points that VR has found its footing in the sector. Already in 2015, the United Nations created Virtual Reality Series which addresses crises worldwide. Instead of young students, this series is specifically aimed at decision makers ‘to spread awareness and create empathy.’ Therefore, VR is not only used to educate, but to deepen the knowledge that other media platforms already provide – to make people, and funders, to understand the struggles that individuals are facing and make them feel they can have an impact.

Shailey Minocha, professor of Learning Technologies and Social Computing at the Open University has noted that VR does not only make it possible to experience different locations, but it also complements the physical field trip experience – therefore, VR can be a useful tool for educating international development professionals. Creating VR tools to educate young people or attract donors is not only a question of creativity. Because of the high cost of creating the scenarios, smaller charities do not have an opportunity to create their own. However, as Gabo Arora, Senior Adviser at the United Nations, has suggested, there is an opportunity to bring in partners with the technical expertise to make it happen. This again can change the partnership structures or relations within the international development field. Just last year, GSM Association, an organisation representing mobile network operators worldwide, launched an industry-wide initiative that focuses on the development on cloud virtual reality technology.

Of course an important question behind all this is not who has the technical expertise to create tools or to whom the product is aimed for, but who has been consulted when the scenarios are being planned – something that only the individuals living in the communities can have a say on.

One comment

  1. Josie Gallo

    Hi Laura,

    Really interested to read your post on VR – it’s been fascinating to see the increase in uptake of NGOs utilising VR within fundraising. I completely agree with your conclusion about the individuals contributing to the portrayal of their story, particularly as VR/360 video can be more intrusive than traditional film making.

    I think some VR fundraising videos have been more successful than others with how ‘immersive’ they are, and it’s also become a bit of an expensive gimmick – some NGOs have produced VR pieces which don’t necessarily benefit from being told in this style, but there is obviously pressure to keep up with competitors and add to the growing trend. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next few years.

    Thanks!

    Josie

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