Sample of negative user reviews of Project Syria on Steam
Project Syria, a virtual reality experience created by immersive journalism progenitor Nonny de la Pena about child refugees, went live on Steam this week to mostly racist and politically vitriolic reviews.
That was a few months ago, and the negative reviews, mostly by people who clearly haven't even bothered to try out the free experience, have only increased since then. This is part of a larger trend, where many will reject any journalism which doesn't agree with their ideology as "fake news". Thing is, most of the population still absorbs at least some news they may hate from their periphery: From the headlines of newspapers and electronic billboards they pass on the street, to the news channels they flip past, on their TVs, to the news items their friends they disagree with on social media share.
VR, however, is very much an appointment-based, opt-in media -- it's time-consuming to install, time-consuming to climb into and experience. (Even assuming it's free.) This very much defines who is going to choose (or reject) which variety of content they want to experience -- and what kind of people and stories they'd prefer to feel empathy for, or not. And this is going to be true until VR becomes about as mass market as film. Movies have also been described as "empathy machines" or similar terms. But everyone watches movies -- making it much easier to smuggle in moments of empathy past viewers' personal biases.
For instance, very few people paid money to see Three Kings because they wanted to empathize with the plight of Middle Eastern war refugees depicted in the film -- much more likely they were fans of George Clooney or of quirky, well-reviewed action movies, or even of the director David O. Russell. But I bet most of them wound up feeling empathy for the refugees all the same. And it's doubtful we can really talk about VR being any kind of empathy machine until the content is as broadly appealing and as accessible as Three Kings.