VR has often been boosted as an "empathy" machine, especially in a much-watched TED talk from VR evangelist Chris Milk (viewable below), enabling users to feel what it's like to walk in another person's shoes. But longtime game academic William Huber (formerly professor at the renowned USC Interactive Media & Games school, now head of game studies at Abertay University), sees a serious problem with that. As he explained in a recent conversation:
"My take on this uncritical embrace of empathy may have something to do with its quasi-psychological aspect: it is an ability which some lack and others experience so strongly, it is detrimental to them. There are many empathetic people who lack any compassion (e.g., Ted Bundy), kind people who lack empathy, and ethical people who lack either empathy or (affective) compassion. At its worst, the focus on empathy might be a way of avoiding the real hard work of ethics. An unempathetic person who treats others with fairness and decency is more heroic than an empathetic person who does so."
Or putting it more succinctly: "[E]thics is work, and empathy machines imply that the audience needs to simply experience to receive the effect."
This all sounds fairly right to me. I'd add another pressing problem: Unless and until VR becomes truly mass market, content created for empathy purposes will tend to be highly self-selective and self-affirming.
For instance, it's one thing to create a VR experience about what it's like to be homeless in real life, but the only people likely to experience it are those who already empathize with homelessness as a real life problem. Does anyone really think even a VR enthusiast who has no evident empathy for the poor in real life -- like for example, I don't know, Palmer Luckey -- put the time and effort into having an experience which is intended to challenge their world view? More likely they'll just keep playing and doing otherwise in, say, Grand Theft Auto: VR.
Pictured: Dr. Huber with early VR device.