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

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Pokemon GO! The Ethics of Augmented Reality

Pokemon Go is the new gaming phenomenon of the year. Revisiting the old fashioned Nintendo Pokemon games, Pokemon Go takes that same experience up a level by adding the features of Augmented Reality. Allowing people to walk around the planet with their phones and search for Pokemon, the game has added a new dimension to gaming. And along with that, one of the main selling points of the game is their focus on fitness. A recent statistic stated that since the game released earlier this year, people playing the game have walked about 4.6 billion kilometers. To put that into perspective, that’s more than the distance from the Sun to Neptune and more than the distance NASA’s Voyager 1 has travelled in the past 12 years!

However, this achievement does not come without problems. While the game has several positive aspects – people are being more active and have started going out more (even though they are still looking into their screens), and meeting new people (I myself have made a couple of friends while playing the game), there have been quite a few concerns regarding trespassing. People have often been reported to walk into peoples private residences, trying to catch a particular Pokemon. While Niantic, the developers of the game are completely on the legal side of this issue, questions about the company’s responsibility for the actions of their consumers have started emerging. The popularity of the game has pushed the company into new ethical and legal issues that have never been dealt with before; and with the fast developing world of augmented reality, such issues are going to become more frequent as new games implementing this technology are released. While some people say that the players are completely responsible for their actions and how they play the game, many suggest that the game in some ways is encouraging players to trespass into restricted areas, or at restricted times through where the PokeStops are located and where many Pokemon are found.

Public places like monuments or parks are the ideal location to play games such as these, so often Niantic focuses on such areas by providing more Gyms and PokeStops, in a way encouraging their players to come to that location more often. Niantic has received requests from several organizations to remove PokeStops from near their establishments, and so far, Niantic has complied. But the question of whether Niantic is responsible or not is still unanswered.

In my opinion, both parties in question are to an extent to blame for this. Neither are completely wrong in doing this, but since this is a new field of ethical gaming and technology we are dealing with, new rules must be put into play. So far, there are no limitations to where one can place digital markers in the real world, but now as augmented reality is becoming a… reality, we need to make some new laws or rules to govern this. The lack of limitations on where Niantic has put their Gym’s and PokeStops often leads people into unknown territory. As far as the players are concerned, ideally they should be paying more attention to where they are walking and should be more receptive of their surroundings, but the fact that to play the game you must always be looking at the screen of your phone is not really helpful. Niantic has made some efforts to reduce the amount of time that people spend looking at their screens by introducing apps for wearable devices such as the Apple Watch, but this is still not the complete solution. I’m sure that as more game developers start implementing VR into their games, new laws governing the use of digital space will emerge, but until then all we can do is make sure to be more receptive to our surroundings while playing until we are offered a satisfying solution.