At last week’s Tribeca Film Festival, I asked director Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) what had inspired her to experiment with virtual reality for The Protectors: Walk in the Ranger’s Shoes, a VR documentary that was included in the 2017 Tribeca Immersive showcase. “I think that the simple answer is empathy,” Bigelow said. “Not that film doesn't create empathy, of course it does,” she continued. But VR, to Bigelow and her co-director Imraan Ismail, offered an intimacy that traditional cinema can’t. It was the perfect way to raise the profile of the real-life rangers who protect endangered elephants in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — which was, ultimately, The Protectors’ goal.
For the last few years, this idea — that virtual reality is an “empathy machine,” as many put it — has been one of the medium’s central tenets. And as The Protectors indicates, the empathy machine is as present as ever at Tribeca. But filmmakers and developers seem increasingly ambivalent of the catch-all term — and at the festival, the medium’s creators are looking for ways to evolve beyond it.
The phrase “empathy machine” likely originated with Roger Ebert, who described film as “the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.” But in a 2015 TED Talk, filmmaker Chris Milk claimed the label for virtual reality. Milk’s definition of empathy was broad enough to include his seven-year-old self identifying as Evel Knievel. The works we associate with VR empathy, though, are usually awareness-raising experiences where viewers get a firsthand view of war, sickness, or other forms of suffering. Groundbreaking VR journalist Nonny de la Peña pioneered the form, starting with her 2012 piece Hunger in Los Angeles, which re-created a real incident of a diabetic man collapsing in a food bank line. Milk’s studio Here Be Dragons (formerly Vrse.works) arguably codified the empathy machine genre with Clouds over Sidra, a 2015 award-winning 360-degree video set in a camp for Syrian refugees.
EMPATHY ISN’T OVER, BUT THE TERM HAS BECOME A BUZZWORD
Here Be Dragons produced two films for Tribeca 2017, both of which fit this mold: the aforementioned The Protectors and The Last Goodbye, which re-creates the ruins of a Nazi concentration camp. But studio co-founder and president Patrick Milling-Smith resisted the ubiquitous label. “I never want to hear anybody say ‘empathy machine’ again,” he confessed in an interview. Milling-Smith hasn’t changed his mind about the underlying idea of VR creating empathy: “It was so correct,” he said. After two years, though, he thinks the term is becoming overused.
Others at the festival took a firmer stance. Unrest reflects filmmaker Jennifer Brea’s firsthand experience being bedridden with chronic fatigue syndrome, the subject of her documentary of the same name. Co-creator Amaury La Burthe, though, denied that the piece is based around provoking empathy. “It's more about showing this moment with [Brea] and seeing how she overcomes that,” he said. He thinks of his mission as simply creating an experience that feels real. “I don't like this ‘empathy machine’ thing,” said La Burthe, who finds things like VR refugee documentaries “a bit weird” and ineffective. “For me it doesn't generate that much empathy. I prefer a very good documentary,” he said. “360 immersion doesn't add that much in this respect.”
“IF YOU WON'T BELIEVE SOMEONE'S PAIN UNLESS THEY WRAP AN EXPENSIVE 360 VIDEO AROUND YOU, THEN PERHAPS YOU DON'T ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT THEIR PAIN.”
This kind of ambivalence extends far beyond Tribeca. Last month, game developer Robert Yang published a diatribe against the term“empathy machine,” arguing that “the illusion of empathy” was the best that these experiences could offer. “If you won't believe someone's pain unless they wrap an expensive 360 video around you, then perhaps you don't actually care about their pain,” he wrote. An earlier New Inquiry essay by Kathryn Hamilton also lambasted Clouds over Sidra, which Hamilton said “invites the user into a visual and aural immersion, without the user facing any of the consequences of being immersed in that space.”
Even if we assume VR can create true empathy, that empathy can be easily misused or exploited. That premise underlies the Tribeca VR film Extravaganza, which is set inside a retro-futuristic headset that plays animatronic skits. In Extravaganza, a media executive tries out the headset, which he’s been told is an “empathy machine.” But all it plays are puppet shows full of (literally) balloon-breasted women and crude racial stereotypes, who are slaughtered — to the man’s amusement — by a monocled 19th century explorer. According to creator Ethan Shaftel, it critiques the way that a new medium can reproduce old forms of bigotry. “This puppet show was clearly made for people like him, by people like him, and it’s certainly not making the world any better,” said Shaftel. The technology might be new, but “this show’s already been made and programmed, and will never change.”
“YOU BRING YOUR ‘YOU-NESS’ WITH YOU IN A WAY THAT IS VERY DIFFERENT THAN CINEMA.”
Shaftel does believe that VR creates empathy, but he thinks that in some ways, it’s actually worse at inspiring it than traditional film. “VR is an immersion machine. It can and does transport you,” he said. “But in many ways, you bring your ‘you-ness’ with you in a way that is very different than cinema.” Film viewers might have a powerful response to a close-up of an emotional character. In VR, people might be more focused on their own feeling of presence. “Creating the powerful empathy that cinema routinely achieves — from movies to reality shows, to Super Bowl commercials — is something that current VR technique does not do well.” It will take time, he thinks, for VR filmmakers to figure out the medium’s true strengths.
Which isn’t to say that everyone at Tribeca thinks the idea of an empathy machine is obsolete. Zohar Kfir, who used the term in reference to her interactive sexual assault documentaryTestimony, believes that VR has clear, pragmatic emotional advantages. “Putting a headset on is a commitment to watch something. It's not like scrolling [through] a YouTube video,” she said at the festival. “When you're by yourself and you're watching something, it's ground zero for intimacy.” So ultimately, has the phrase been helpful? “Yeah.”
And one Tribeca installation was literally created as part of an empathy experiment: Becoming Homeless, from Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. In the game-likeBecoming Homeless, participants must select objects that they’ll sell to make rent. When the money runs out, they sit on a bus, forced to split their attention between keeping an eye on their backpack and watching a potential harasser — if they look away from the bag, it starts sliding away, but if they don’t keep watching the man, he starts approaching. It underlines mundane but chronic problems that may be invisible to people who haven’t faced homelessness.
“IT'S GROUND ZERO FOR INTIMACY.”
In the accompanying study, whose results are currently undergoing review, researchers followed up Being Homeless with a series of questions. They asked participants about their feelings toward homeless people, in addition to measuring concrete behaviors like a willingness to sign an affordable housing petition. Participants’ responses provided new data points for the Virtual Human Interaction Lab’s substantial body of research. “We've been studying empathy in VR for a number of years now,” said project manager Elise Ogle at Tribeca. In limited, short-term studies, the lab has found that VR can prompt people to better plan for the future or be more environmentally conscious. With Becoming Homeless, the team also hopes to find out if positive effects persist after eight weeks — a length of time far longer than their previous studies have measured.
One of the biggest takeaways from Stanford’s research, though, is that experiences need a lot of fine-tuning to make a difference. “The experience and context matters,” said lab manager Tobin Asher. “The reason we do so many iterations of a lot of these pieces is because subtle things can make a difference.” This can mean different levels of interactivity, or variables like whether someone’s virtual hands match the skin tone of their real ones — which, in turn, raises its own questions about people’s ability to put themselves in others’ shoes. As for the other things they’ve learned about VR and empathy? “We've learned that a lot of people have listened to Chris Milk's TED Talk,” Ogle said wryly.
It’s possible that as virtual reality diversifies, the empathy genre will feel more like one possibility among many. One Tribeca Immersive installation, NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, imagines a utopian future for marginalized people instead of a dark present. Fiction was once rare in VR cinema, but a substantial number of this year’s selections were short narrative films whose main purpose wasn’t evoking a moment of socially conscious connection. And it’s possible that at a time when positive visions of the world feel difficult to find, more virtual reality will move toward seeking hope. As Milling-Smith muses: “Maybe we need more optimistic VR right now, for the next four years.”