I’d like to take this week’s theme of 3D research and visualization to reflect on virtual reality games and simulations, which have also been used in research. Examples of this are plentiful: from virtual reality situations testing proprioceptive systems to providing meditation settings and exercises to assessing players’ navigations of ethical dilemmas. Putting people into virtual realities works so well for reserach because it provides spaces with lower stakes and risks that also draw on players’ senses to construct embodied experiences. In other words, it’s a reality that feels real, if constructed, but where many of the limitations of actual bodies can be tested and surpassed.
The games that I study are very related to virtual reality–they’re so-called “walking simulators,” first-person narrative exploration games that are very easy to turn into VR experiences. They’re already first person games, so they’re pretty natural translations to VR. Many of these games are about providing a particular affective experience for players: getting them to feel something like loss, joy, despair, etc. For example, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (which I’m presenting on at SCMS tomorrow!) is a game about dealing with ostracization, exclusion, and loss through fiction and imagination.
Games that are designed to make us feel something–and do so through an embodied experience–are often claimed (or claim themselves) to be building empathy for the experience in the player/audience. The idea being that when you encounter someone else’s experience in VR, you will then have empathy for that experience. This can be a good thing: empathy can help build understanding and spur people to act against injustice. Yet it can also be very problematic, as many scholars studying empathy have noted. What happens when fictions and games fail to inspire empathy? What does it say when we pin our hopes for justice or our definitions of humanity on empathy? In other words, what happens to those we don’t empathize with? And, perhaps most perniciously, does empathy force people to rehearse their struggles, oppressions, and losses for an audience? Does it require a certain performance in order for something or someone to be worthy of empathy?
I’m still thinking through these questions, especially given an awesome presentation by Bridget Blodgett (University of Baltimore) this morning on Dear Esther, another walking sim/first person narrative game. The genre is fascinating for how it constructs space and experience for the player, and I’m interested in what it can do and what it can tell us about contemporary culture.