Virtual Reality and Empathy
In my final semester at Indiana University, I completed a User Research thesis project. I choose to focus on User Research, as opposed to a more product based Interaction Design project because I wanted to spend my last weeks in graduate school honing my research skills.
The driving question throughout my research project focused on how people experience empathy. My research and design process was driven by question as I moved through my research. As the project moved forward, I narrowed in on the Virtual Reality space because of the current emphasis in popular culture on driving experiences of empathy with VR.
My initial research on empathy showcased how important the experience of empathy is to human connection. Virtual reality has the ability to make a situation more real to the user, but only focusing on realistic visuals is a very shallow view of the range and importance of empathy.
Through interviews, a focus on media representation, and an in depth look at the capabilities of VR, my research project focuses on how empathy can be effectively integrated into the VR experience.
15 weeks (Spring 2016)
This page details all of my process, research, and rationale for my thesis project. If you're more interested in a summarized view, please look through the booklet or the poster. Both PDFs are linked below.
Below you can access all of the final deliverables. The booklet is a high level, visual summary of both my research, as well as my findings. The document is a more in-depth look at my rationale behind using each of the user research methods I choose. The poster is a visual representation with a high level summary to showcase our graduating class's work together.
How do people experience empathy?
This project began with a goal of understanding the experience of empathy. This is an aspect of the human experience that is commonly talked about and highly valued; however, it is also broad and is understood differently by people.
- Find the differences and the similarities in the ways people understand and experience empathy
- Understand how people tell others stories when they want them to feel empathy
- Learn the language people use when they talk about empathy
I sent out a survey that asked people to define empathy in their own words. The entire survey was open ended questions that asked for thoughts on empathy, as well as a moment in their life they felt empathetic. I wanted to collect a sample of definitions and moments to see if there were any similarities or patterns that surfaced around the subject matter.
The respondent's definitions and examples all focused on connection and presence.
100% of respondents stated that empathy was important to them. Many went as far to say they believed it was key to the human experience.
Early on in my research I found that interviewing was not an effective way to understand how people experience empathy. People have difficulty remembering specific moments when asked on the spot and instead speak about the subject in very generic terms. I conducted an artifact analysis instead asking the participant to describe their experience of empathy through an object.
I asked people to think in advance of an object in their life that remind them of a moment of empathy. We then sat down and had a conversation that revolved around an object. While giving the user time to prepare and think about their experiences in advance, I still found that empathy is not a simple experience. People struggle to describe exactly what triggers a moment of empathy.
Throughout my early research on empathy, including primary and secondary research, I found a link between empathy and engagement. While these two are absolutely not one in the same, there is an element of care embedded in both. In order to better understand how people persuade others to care about a specific subject matter, I conducted a series of interviews with teachers. My goal here was to understand their process when looking for ways to engage their students.
The group of teachers I spoke with were all high school teachers of different subjects. I found that all these teachers brought up being novel. All of these teachers are working with many constraints, including standardizations from the school and budgets, but they all found ways to use affordable technology, such as Google Hangouts, to keep their lesson plans relevant. This shows students new information in a way they already understand.
However, there was an important point that was also noted - the lesson plan has to be focused. New technology can't just be thrown at the students. In order for the receiving end to care about something, the person relaying the message needs to have care behind the delivery.
Emotion and Immersion
Video Games Critical Analysis
I reviewed several forms of media throughout my process, but choose to focus in on video games because of the agency they allow the player. This agency and choice driven design gives players an ownership over the stories that isn't often found in other media. While a viewer might feel excitement or joy for a protagonist they cheer for in a movie, they will not feel pride the way they might after saving a victim in a game or shame the way they might after committing a crime in the same world.
The photos show a sample of the games I played to understand how video game developers and designers use choice and game mechanics to immerse their player and bring about a variety of emotions. These games address a range of subject matter, including war, relationships, mental health, and coming of age. The games also have a variety of gameplay. For example, in Her Story, players interact with only a search engine while they attempt to solve a crime mystery. Playing the games allowed me to not only understand the stories and choice, but also the game mechanics that challenge the player to think in a new way.
I also spent time with social video games, like Journey, to better understand how players can connect and feel emotions together in these universes. Researcher Jane McGonigal refers to the emotions that one can develop through networks formed in gameplay as prosocial emotions. Her research focuses on not only video games, but real world games as well.
Diary Studies, Observation, and Contextual Inquiry
Gaining insight into how these games challenge the player with not only story, but also unique gameplay gave me a stronger background moving into diary studies and observation. For the diary study, I asked individual participants to play one game for at least two hours and record their thoughts every 15 minutes. I gave them each a specific game so that I was able to provide the download code and to ensure that I was familiar with the content of the game when going through the diary entries. For the contextual inquiries and the observation, I provided the game as well, but sat with the player as they went through the game. I also felt that it was important to have a range of game skill levels represented in my research - about half of the participants played video games regularly and half did not play video games.
Pairing the diary studies with observing people playing other empathy games allowed me to explore different touch points in this experience. By finding a variety of participants to play games, and using a variety of research methods I was able to better understand how people processed and appreciated different parts of the game. I found in the diary studies I was able to see what moments resonated with the players later based on what they choose to discuss in their writing - while in the observation I was looking for facial cues to see what moments resonated.
The contextual inquiries in particular provided unique insight into how players think about their character in the game. I found in each of the contextual inquiries, when the person felt they had control of all the decisions, they referred to the character as I. For example, "I wouldn't lie to my family, I'm trustworthy." As soon as the game took away any agency - for example, a story based game like Firewatch, the player has several dialogue options at any given moment, but there is little flexibility in the ultimate ending - the player began to refer to the character by name. "Henry is being too mean to that woman - why is he doing that?" There was a clear struggle when a character they had become attached to - a character they had thought of as themselves - began to break away from that.
"The goal of a proposal is to show a general idea or direction, not the complete details of a design"
William Gaver (2011)
The following proposals are based off insights I found throughout my research process. These are not finished designs, but potential directions virtual reality could be taken in order to incorporate a more human centered, empathy driven approach.
Each of these proposals is focused around themes that I saw arise in my research around VR experiences.
These proposals focus on connection with another person. A common element of empathy is a moment with another person. These proposals are reflections on how VR can focus on connection individuals.
The unlimited space in VR gives people the ability to have a space for stories. This application would consist of a series of rooms where various storytellers could share whatever messages they feel they need to.
This platform would provide the tools to these storytellers to put their stories in VR. The presence factor of VR would give people an immersive situation where they can listen to these pieces directly from the storyteller.
This proposal connects a person wishing to travel with a resident of that location. While the potential visitor is in VR exploring the place they wish to visit, they will be connected to the resident. The resident will have a tablet interface where they can see where the VR user is looking.
Traveling Together connects two people in different areas of the world and allows them to share a moment over a subject they both care about and understand in different ways.
A key moment to experience of empathy is giving another person the power to feel vulnerable in that moment. These proposals give power to those unique user groups, rather than showcasing their stories to those outside their situation.
The focus of this experience is to put those suffering from anxiety into situations that they want to be prepared for or fear they may be uncomfortable with.
Viewing these experiences in the safe space of VR gives these people an opportunity to explore different behaviors or how situations may play out with no real consequences.
Opening the Physical World
Virtual reality has the ability to place users in locations they can not otherwise visit.
While it cannot replace visiting physical locations, for those that are disabled, elderly, or in other positions where they can no long complete daily tasks or visit places they love, VR can give them the ability to do that.
Historical Moments would take place in a classroom setting. Using VR students could have the opportunity to visit places in history, such as a battlefield from a war.
Rather than only allowing students to explore historical locations in VR, teachers or other administrators would pair that with a lesson relating to that moment.
This will allow for more exploration, as well as foster conversation and further interest in the subject matter.
**All images are taken by me, from creative commons, or screenshots from my own gameplay