Virtual Reality

Can We Learn Empathy from Virtual Reality?

Jon Irwin Author, Kill Screen

Scientists are learning that changing bodies changes minds.

In 1981, after you plunked a quarter into the local Donkey Kong cabinet and that menacing, six-note melody filled the arcade, you were given control of a little man in overalls standing at the bottom of the screen. Child or adult, male or female, no matter what our ethnic or cultural background, in that game we all became this same little man in overalls.

Interactive games have always intended to entertain, but many have the potential to bring deeper psychological benefits.

Arguably there is no other medium where we, the players, so actively participate in an imagined world. We can control a character in a game more so than a character we read about, or watch in a film.


The end goal in Donkey Kong is to defeat the great ape, save his hostage and watch him tumble down. But what if the goal was not shallow heroism but self-realization?

What if we took ownership not of a pixelated everyman but lived behind the skin of another human being?

A team of researchers from Barcelona and London recently published a study in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science called “Changing bodies changes minds.” The results point toward virtual reality playing an active role not just in time-wasting entertainment but meaningful, societal changes.

“The key idea was to see whether by changing how we represent ourselves, we can in turn change the way we relate to others,” said Dr. Manos Tsakiris, professor of psychology at the University of London, explaining the goal of the study.

The problem, of course, is that it’s tricky to alter our gender or race without drastic bodily transformation. Tsakiris and his team circumvent this through tactics both simple and advanced.

In the study, participants were exposed to bodily illusions that induced ownership over a body different than their own. One was called “Enfacement Illusion,” where a caucasian woman watches a monitor of a black woman’s face. On the monitor, a hand intermittently strokes the black woman’s face with a Q-tip. In the room, a researcher strokes the white woman’s face with a Q-tip at the same time.

“By changing self-resemblance,” Tsakiris tells me, “we create this illusion of ‘sameness.’ Because typically we have positive associations with self-related things, then people who are perceived to be like us are treated in a positive way.”

Another experiment used virtual reality to enhance this “self-resemblance.” A participant wore VR goggles and a motion-capture suit for twenty minutes. Through the viewfinder, it appeared they were in a beige room with a single mirror. When they looked into the mirror, their reflection, which mimicked their every movement, was of another person.

A series of Implicit Association Tests (IAT) before and after the VR experiment recorded the participant’s attitudes toward an “outgroup.” After this virtual ownership of another’s body, their attitudes towards that group nearly always became more positive.


This kind of illusion can affect our mind beyond racial or ethnic stereotypes. Similar experiments have taken place where an older person is given the virtual body of a child. Immediately afterward, they responded in child-like ways and processed information from a younger person’s perspective.

Implicit biases are thought to be formed at an early age and remain throughout adulthood, but studies like Tsakiris’ explore whether these can be changed. He has no illusion that the study will stop racism or other societal ills, yet he can imagine a near-future where certain populations, such as grade-school students or police officers, are given similar tasks as part of their training.

“With the increased accessibility of virtual reality technologies, our experiments can be easily transformed into educational tools that could allow participants to experience the world from the perspective of someone different from themselves.”

In 1982, Nintendo released the sequel to Donkey Kong called Donkey Kong Jr. You control Kong’s son as he tries to save his dad from his captor: the man in the overalls.

Maybe we’ll never really understand the feelings and behaviors of others, but games past, present and future are helping us explore what it’s like living inside another person’s skin.


Feature image by Giuseppe Costantino /



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