NPR recently reported on a experimental Virtual reality game that attempts to create a connection between participants and a conflict happening thousands of miles away. “Project Syria” is a project coming out of University Southern California (USC) that is utilizing virtual reality hardware to make an intimate experience that generates awareness and empathy for the civil war in Syria. You may be saying to yourself “Hey, wait. I don’t want to play a game that puts me into a depressing scenario! I just wanna play Animal Crossing and electronically prune trees!” but let’s open our mind up alittle, WILL YA.
You can watch a non-virtual reality demo of the game here. For those not willing to watch, the demo puts you in the middle of a town with people walking around conversing. Over the sounds of street hustle and bustle you can hear a young girl singing. Then, without warning, a bomb goes off and all sounds are immediately replaced with ringing. The town then becomes full of dust and the scene is one of tragedy and disaster.
Project Syria is one of the first virtual reality demos to be used to gain awareness for real world issues, but it certainly isn’t the first game to be designed to create awareness for an issue. In fact organizations like Games for Change and TAKE ACTION GAMES have creating games to bring awareness to social issues for over a decade. The game to create the biggest waves was arguably MTV’s “Darfur is Dying” released online in 2006, in which players took up the role of a family displaced by conflict in Darfur.
As they discuss in the NPR piece, Video games have the unique place in media as having the ability for more immersion than other forms. Movie goers can watch a film, create a connection to the movies character and plot, and then immediately disconnect. Video games expand those connections by giving the player choices and decisions that directly effect the character and plot, thus creating a stronger and longer lasting connection. Naturally then, video games have the ability to create great levels of empathy and awareness than other forms of media because the ties are that much stronger.
As Nonny de la Peña says in her interview with NPR “”I sometimes call Virtual reality an empathy generator….It’s astonishing to me. People all of a sudden connect to the characters in a way that they don’t when they’ve read about it in the newspaper or watched it on TV.”
Now obviously we’re probably not going to see most mainstream games take on social issues (Super Mario Syrian Crisis isn’t a title we’ll see anytime soon), but as game technology develop more and more we’ll definitely see video games used as social teaching devices, which is something we’re already seeing in schools. The question then becomes how and when we should use video games as tools for social change effectively, and that answer isn’t exactly clear yet.
Let me know what you think: Are video games good tools for social change? What experiences have you had? Are the tools of the future for creating empathy? Do you want to crowdfund “Super Mario Syrian Crisis”?