When something bad happens to us, we often blame our circumstances; but when something bad happens to someone else, we tend to think that it’s their fault. Stanford psychologists call this phenomenon the Fundamental Attribution Error, and note that it can be a major obstacle to developing empathy. It’s hard to really take on another person’s perspective when we’re only ever immersed in our own. But what if we really could see the world through someone else’s eyes? Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab designed a virtual reality (VR) experience to do just that. "Becoming Homeless: A Human Experience" aims to give users a first-personal perspective of what it feels like to no longer be able to afford your home. They used the game as part of a study to examine the effectiveness of virtual reality for increasing user empathy.
"Becoming Homeless" immerses the user in a whirlwind of helplessness. When I put on the VR headset and earphones, I see bills littering my desk and hear the radio announce the rise in homelessness throughout the city. I try to sell my furniture to pay my rent, but it’s isn’t enough and my landlord evicts me.
The VR experience effectively balances agency and helplessness to make me feel that, despite my best efforts, the situation is out of my control. I felt an intense vulnerability throughout the narrative, which was exacerbated by my interactions with law enforcement officers and strangers, as well as through my inability to control the narrative’s movement. Experiencing "Becoming Homeless" was not enjoyable, but it made me feel the fear and powerlessness of being homeless in an intense way.
There are only three scenes in "Becoming Homeless," which limited my ability to embody the full experience of homelessness. I felt the pain of losing my apartment and my car, but there are many aspects of homelessness I did not experience, such as living in a shelter or losing access to food and hygiene. Also, I left the experience feeling moved, but unsure of what to do about the ongoing problem of homelessness. In addition to living through negative experiences, I would have liked to experience interacting with well-meaning strangers. Gaining a first-person perspective on what it’s like to receive help or a smile when undergoing such intense suffering might help users learn how to help alleviate the loneliness and fear experienced by those suffering homelessness.
While I found this VR experience helpful for gaining insight into the horror of homelessness, I can also envision a more cynical response to the narrative. The game is designed to give the user the illusion of agency, but there is no way for the user, through his or her actions, to escape homelessness. This is meant to highlight the impossibility of overcoming certain difficult circumstances, but it also makes the experience feel rigged. It might help users who are predisposed to this response to see themselves as immersed in a story rather than playing a game.
In line with the findings of the researchers at Stanford, I found that my ability to empathize with people experiencing homelessness increased through this VR experience. While I’m not sure how this increase in empathy will play out in my daily life, I hope it will have a real effect on my actions.Image: by SLR Jester via Flickr