Augmented Empathy: VR/AR’s Impact on Gamers

Game psychologists are looking to a relatively new gaming medium to explore the effects of in-game experiences on the real lives of gamers: virtual and augmented reality. According to the Virtual Reality Society, virtual reality gaming is “where a person can experience being in a three-dimensional environment and interact with that environment during a game.” In contrast, augmented reality gaming is “the integration of game visual and audio content with the user’s environment in real time. … While virtual reality games require specialized VR headsets, only some augmented reality systems use them.”

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What these two forms of new gaming have in common is the integration of the gamer into immersive storytelling. Rather than watching the effects of gameplay choices play out on a flat screen using a controller, the gamer becomes the controller and experiences the impact of their in-game decisions in real time.

In the case of augmented reality, gamers can even experience the impacts of their decisions on their real environment through a camera. This leads to a sensation gamers call TINAG, or “This Is Not A Game,” in which one of the main goals of the game is to deny and disguise the fact that it is even a game at all (Virtual Reality Society).

Because of the real-world, real-time feel, gamers often feel there are higher stakes to their in-game decisions. Game psychologists argue that “VR experiences can impact the empathy of their users and immediately translate to positive real world behavior.” One example of this comes from a study done on VR gamers who were instructed to cut down a virtual tree. After cutting down this tree in the game, the gamers used an average of 20% less paper in real life.

Another study suggests that the more a gamer immerses in the environment of the game, the more likely they are for in-game choices to affect their empathy outside of the game. For example, when a gamer picks and customizes an avatar, they often bring traits from their real life into their game life. This causes them to identify more strongly with their in-game persona and blur the line that separates gaming from real life.

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AR and VR games are the final frontier in eliminating that line completely. When your in-game character is no longer distinguishable from your true self, your choices in and outside of gameplay affect one another inherently.

The implications of this empathy-building through gaming are massive. Some game psychologists argue that it is the moral responsibility of AR/VR game developers to consider the empathic development of their gamers when creating storylines, often with a focus on empathy for other persons, animal rights, and the environment.

Whether or not you believe the onus of creating a more empathetic generation falls on game developers, the impact of these AR/VR games on the emotional development of gamers is undeniable and will likely only grow as the technology flourishes.

Kathleen Shea

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563214003999
https://www.vrs.org.uk/virtual-reality-games/what-is-vr-gaming.html
https://venturebeat.com/2018/09/24/augmented-reality-can-foster-empathy-and-games-can-take-advantage/
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0747563217305381