Is Virtual Reality Better than Cinema at Engendering Empathy?

by Ray Dweck


The recent incorporation of cinematic narratives into virtual reality simulations has generated discussion as to whether VR is a superior medium for storytelling than cinema, particularly, in terms of whether it is more effective at engendering empathy with characters (Hamilton).  Proponents of VR as an ideal medium for arousing empathy (Milk) have emphasized the medium’s alleged potential for enabling increased empathic engagement with characters as a crucial aspect of its superiority over cinematic storytelling in general, with empathy figuring as a prominent aspect of our emotional engagement with characters and stories (Copland).

Empathy, which is generally defined as imaginatively experiencing another person’s thoughts and emotions in order to acquire an “exact” or at least “adequate understanding of (his or her) mental state” (McNabb), relates explicitly to the ambitions of ‘embodied simulation’ in VR, a process whereby users adopt the audiovisual perceptions of a given character, navigate his or her environment, and assume his or her social identity through interactions with other characters.  Regarded as a successor to cinematic character engagement, embodied simulation purports to allow users to not only experience a given character’s thoughts and emotions (as in cinema), but to think and emote as a character.  While cinema enables spectators to passively imagine characters’ thoughts and emotions and, furthermore, without necessarily confusing them as their own (Coplan), embodied simulation promises to supplant the user’s thoughts and emotions with those of the character whom s(he) embodies. empathy-brains-130911

But is VR really better than cinema at engendering empathy, and is it possible for VR storytelling to outmode cinematic storytelling on this basis?  The question is an interesting one in light of the recent proliferation of award-winning and critically acclaimed VR films “allow(ing) us to feel empathy for people that are very different than us in worlds completely foreign from our own,” (“Chris Milk”), including this year’s Google Cardboard-capable Clouds over Sidra (Chris Milk and Gabo Arora, 2015) and the recent Sundance entry Perspective Part 1; The Party (Rose Troche and Morris May, 2014).  Clouds over Sidra depicts the disheartening displacement of an adolescent female refugee during wartime in Syria, while The Party immerses participants in the inebriated date-rape encounter between a college-age man and woman at a house party — both films supposedly leaving us with the sense of having been through these characters’ experiences ourselves, and to point of becoming these characters while “forget(ting)” our own unique thoughts, emotions, and identities (“Jason Silva”).

Proponents of VR as“the ultimate empathy machine” (“Chris Milk”) point to the medium’s ability to allow us to literally ‘take a walk in someone else’s shoes’ (as the idiom goes) — with increasingly realistic VR simulations enabling users to enact narrative events (Huhtammo) or otherwise experience a sense of “inhabiting the (imagined) world” of the simulation through willfully controlled perception of and movement through an avatar’s simulated environment (“Chris Milk”).  However, upon experiencing them, films such as Clouds over Sidra and The Party prove so believable in simulating the spatio-temporal perceptions of separate characters and environments that, in enabling us to ‘become’ these characters, we are predisposed toward comprehending, responding to, and behaving in the context of these virtual experiences according to our own emotional inclinations, in addition to perceiving our avatars’ simulated environments as colored by our own abstract psychological worldview (which at this point in technology cannot be cleanly ‘swapped’ with that of another person).

It may currently be popular to think of VR as a successor to cinematic storytelling in terms of its ability to emotionally engage users, but the cinematic qualities which VR largely eschews in order enable increased empathic engagement — e.g., focalized perspective of narrative events and lack of agency over determining or altering the presentation of narrative events ourselves, etc. — actually render it less effective at achieving empathy.  Despite that Clouds over Sidra and The Party do manage to engender emotional comprehension of the avatars’ experiences at some level, the absence in these simulations of those qualities that make cinema less of an interactive experience and moreso observable narrative storytelling cause them to trigger our own emotional reactions toward the situations we experience (as opposed to those of the avatars), and allow for the possibility of more or less avoiding aspects of our avatars’ perceptions or actions.  By contrast, traditional films, which force spectators to submit to a focalized perspective of narrative events by “(draw)ing our attention to particular people, objects, and events at specific points in the story” (“Video Games & Movies…”), strive toward making spectators aware of characters’ emotions and thoughts — cuing spectators toward comprehending characters’ emotions in regards to their situations and, in turn, comprehending narrative events in terms of the emotional relevance they hold for characters (Copland).  

Even in a simulation such as Clouds over Sidra — which requires users to follow a predetermined progression of narrative events, and which employs voice-over narration informing the user’s perception of the avatar’s environment — the user is able to freely view the simulated environments from a multiplicity of angles which may or may not be relevant to the central dramatic action, and through this agency of perspective can minimize if not counteract the attempt of the fixed narrative progression and voice-over to synchronize his or her emotions with those of the avatar.  And in perhaps a more extreme example of the potential of embodied simulation to easily inspire emotions and thoughts that are incongruent with those of the avatar, The Party implicates users in observing his or avatars’ actions, but does not necessarily synchronize the avatar’s expressed emotions with the user’s aroused emotions (e.g., the male protagonist’s alcohol-fueled lust and desire for having sex with a woman, versus the user’s horror at the protagonist’s act of raping the unconscious woman).  

Ultimately, the intended effect of Clouds over Sidra and The Party, and of the promised proliferation of VR experiences characterized by an even greater sense of simulational realism, seems to be predicated on a rather romantic notion of empathy as quickly if not immediately achievable through engaging in a physical simulation of another person’s bodily experiences (and, subsequently, emerging from those experiences with an assured and tolerant understanding of that person’s emotions and identity).  However, in light of Simon Penny’s argument that embodied simulation tends toward engaging users in nonconscious physical activity (“Representation, Enaction, and the Ethics of Simulation”), it is possible to conjecture that, the more closely embodied simulations approximate real-life perception and action, and the less they resemble observable narratives, the more they are prone to invoke from the user pure perception, action, and behavior at the expense of the kind of reflective or contemplative thought that is necessary for empathy, and which is more readily achievable through cinematic spectatorship.  

vr-empathy-machine In a sense, embodied simulation in VR seems as if it could easily and, given the rate of current technological advances, quickly progress toward something representing less of an advancement in audiovisual storytelling, and more of an all-too-real simulation that appears to cease to be storytelling — perhaps consequently minimizing chances of empathic imagination and encouraging action without reflective thought.


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Works Cited
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Chris Milk and Gabo Arora. Clouds over Sidra. 2015.
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Manovich, Lev. “Visual Technologies As Cognitive Prostheses: A Short History of the Externalization of the Mind.”
McNabb, Ramsey. “The Power of Empathy.” Philosophy Now, Issue 52. August/September 2005. < >
Penny, Simon. “Representation, Enaction, and the Ethics of Simulation.” 2004.
“Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party.” Sundance Institute. < >
Rose Troche and Morris May. Perspective; Chapter 1: The Party. 2014.
“The Sense of Embodiment in Virtual Reality” Konstantina Kilteni, Raphaela Groten, Mel Slater. Presence, Vol. 21, No. 4, Fall 2012, 373–387.
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