Virtual Reality as an Instrument for Social Change
Virtual reality (VR) is here and has already been described by many as “revolutionary” and the “next big thing” in technology. Its applications consist of not just entertainment and games, but also education, art and a range of other innovative uses.
But VR also has the potential to promote social change. A picture, they say, is worth more than a thousand words. Images have the ability to communicate complex ideas and provoke emotions more effectively than descriptions. Take as an example Aduc Barec‘s story: she was forced to leave Sudan in the early 1990s due to the civil war. Her family walked for a month before they reached Ethiopia, where they lived in limbo until they settled in a refugee camp for five years. Aduc and her family were eventually resettled in Australia.
It is, however, not easy to gain a full grasp of their experiences from mere reading of her story, along with those of other refugees.
Another example. Imagine reading reports, for the first time, from the animal rights group PETA about the plight of pigs and other animals in factory farms. You would read about the physical mutilation of piglets without painkillers at a young age, that for most of their lives they are confined indoors in a crowded pen, and that their ultimate fate is the abattoir, where they are stunned and slaughtered.
Many people may find it difficult to empathize and understand from simply reading these descriptions alone.
Watching a video of the plight of refugees or that of pigs in factory farms is an alternative way that can perhaps stimulate greater intellectual and emotional reactions?
It is well known that images of human and animal suffering can elicit shock, horror, outrage, pity and compassion. Social justice campaigners have known about the power of imagery for a while now, and this is why it is central to their campaigns.
A More Personal Experience
How does VR compare? Social justice campaigners, like animal rights activists, are developing and taking virtual experiences to the physical world.
PETA has exhibited I, Chicken across hundreds of university campuses and universities in the United States and Australia in the last two years. The three-minute simulation casts participants as a virtual chicken and gives the opportunity to experience her life, from roaming in a green pasture to being captured and transported to a slaughterhouse. Students were polled at the end of the viewing during the first two months of the US tour. Participants at one college reported feeling more empathy with the plight of a chicken: “It didn’t feel like a video game anymore at the end.”
Another said: “… after they put you in the slaughterhouse, I actually felt kind of afraid. I don’t know why. I knew it was a game, or whatever, but I guess my body reacted internally as like [I was] about to get killed. After the game, I felt that, yeah, chickens have emotions, they’re like humans, they feel pain.”
PETA discovered that 30% of participants felt “more conflicted” about eating chickens at the end of the three-minute simulation.
A Vehicle for social change
Researchers have also observed that immersive virtual environments make us “see, hear, and feel digital stimuli” as if we were in the real world. In two studies, researchers studied the effects of cutting down a virtual tree compared to reading a print description or watching a video of the same process. They discovered that those immersed in virtual reality exhibited greater behavioral changes and consumed 20% less paper than non-VR participants in the follow-up experiment.
How To Experience this Yourself
It is possible to explore the VR experience for yourself by using a VR headset, or Google Cardboard to discover the lives of pigs in factory farms. Google Cardboard users can also use the apps Vrse or NYT VR to explore “The Displaced” for the moving stories of three children who have been displaced by war and conflict.
VR will likely be the next big thing in the entertainment industry, the possibilities it has for stimulating social and political transformations are however at least equally exciting. Whilst it won’t by itself change the world, it might be a powerful tool we can use for social change.