Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

Can a virtual reality experience increase empathy for refugees

11 Dec 2015 15:17 | Communication

A new interactive installation has made it possible to experience a refugee's journey in virtual reality. The player sits inside a replica of a lorry, and wears a mask and VR glasses, so that all the senses are stimulated: sight, hearing, touch and smell. PhD student Martijn Kors, affiliated with the AUAS Play & Civic Media research group as well as TU Eindhoven, developed this VR experience in cooperation with student Cas Ketel.

Martijn Kors is studying whether and how games can evoke empathy, with this project drawing attention specifically to the refugee's perspective. Kors is a researcher in the AUAS Play & Civic Media research group headed by Professor Ben Schouten. A year and a half ago, the research group entered into cooperation with Amnesty International (with a pilot project at the AUAS MediaLAB), in order to interest a younger target group in human rights issues through games. The key question is: how can we use games as a way of enabling people to put themselves in someone else's position, and to increase their interest in social issues?

Journey in the cargo compartment

In the VR experience ‘A Breathtaking Journey’ the player sits down in a replica of a lorry, after which he becomes part of a personal story of an anonymous person. First, the player sees and hears 'a dream scenario' through the VR glasses: a flashback to the war-torn country from which he has fled. The player understands that his brother was taken, and that an earlier attempt to flee by boat failed, as a result of which he has no money left. The player then 'wakes up' in the back of a lorry. This is where the 'immersion' begins: the player can turn his head and look around. He feels the truck driving and shaking, and smells the scent from the crates of tangerines that surround him. At a border control checkpoint the doors open. The player has to hold his breath as the border guards check the lorry with heat meters. The player's breathing is measured continuously throughout the game. What happens next depends on the choices the player makes.

Measuring empathy

This VR application with scent and touch is relatively new. Does more embodiment have a greater impact on the empathy of the players? This is what Kors and his team are studying. Because the study is still ongoing, it is not yet possible to describe how this is measured.

The aim is to interest a wider audience in the subject. But doesn't the installation appeal mainly to people who are already concerned with this issue? Kors: "It is true that the VR experience appeals to people with an interest in virtual reality, or people who already feel involved in the issue. But at events we can attract people with a variety of opinions on this theme. The installation's novelty factor works well in those situations, as it sparks curiosity among a wider audience, regardless of their opinions on the subject."

The installation was previously featured at the Dutch VR Days. It is currently in a testing area at TU Eindhoven, and it can be found at the  Playground Virtual Reality in Groningen in early December. For more information, contact Martijn Kors: +31 (0)6 4241 2828 /  m.j.l.kors@tue.nl/m.j.l.kors@hva.nl.