On Magical Empathy Machines, and How to Solve Systemic Oppression With This One Weird Old Trick

Since the publication of Ben Kuchera’s article on Polygon yesterday, there’s been much attention on this supposed “Gender Swap” VR experiment.

There’s much to say on the topic of technological panaceas for supposed ’empathy’, and much of that has already been said, very eloquently, by the brilliant Sophie Houlden, who not only outlined the specific problems with Kuchera’s Polygon piece, but in an earlier post, also excellently summed up why the entire concept of VR for empathy is so problematic:

“…it’s important nobody thinks “Oh, so this is what it’s like to be X” because your life is more than what you see – it’s also years of other people seeing you, speaking to you, touching you AND how they do all that. It’s what you see happen to people who are like you and people who are not. It’s your own head thinking for years on end trying to come to terms with all of this. You can’t be someone else without going through this.”

The Polygon article also mentioned the recent similar ‘race-swap’ VR experiments, which apparently showed participants apparently display reduced implicit racial bias after ‘inhabiting’ the body of someone with darker skin than their own. (Incidentally, I’d be interested to see participants tested again for implicit racial bias a few weeks, months, or years after exposure.)

I recently briefly commented on this for the latest edition of the Eastern Eye British Asian newspaper. Though my full comments didn’t make the piece, I did expand on those comments for the TEDxEastEnd talk I originally wrote and rehearsed, though I ended up panicking and leaving out that entire section. Nevertheless, in case it’s of any interest, I’ve embedded the entire video of my talk here, One Weird Old Trick to Solve Sexism and Racism, followed by the notes for the extra bit I managed to omit:

It’s easy to yearn for the wishful thinking that some new innovation may save us; that some tidal wave of cultural shift is waiting on the other side. But that doesn’t get us anywhere. Recent VR experiments both at University of Barcelona and at Royal Holloway in London, saw participants inhabit the body or just the hand of someone with darker skin than their own. These experiments showed a reduction in implicit racial bias. Which is cool, that is a good thing, right? But, not only would that be a tiny step in itself, but it should lead us to wonder: what is it that means people have this implicit racial bias in the first place, and also, why is empathy such a problem that people need to actually ‘put themselves’ in the skin of someone who doesn’t look like them to even begin to process their experiences?

Also, Sophie’s sentiments about ‘Gender Swap’ need to be echoed here; living through a lifetime of being an ethnic minority and all that entails (I seem to remember I touched upon this subject, once upon a much-braver time**) and putting oneself temporarily in the ‘body’ of a person of colour are vastly different.

It may seem obvious to invite suspicion of supposed technological panaceas for such wide-ranging and embedded cultural issues, but it never fails to surprise me how often the point needs to be made, especially to those who don’t realise their scale and subtleties, and this applies double for ‘ways to tackle social injustices’. The point is, this stuff is difficult, and complicated, and to think of it any other way does a disservice to how deeply ingrained and nuanced these issues are.

Perhaps there is some utility to this kind of VR experiment, but I feel like wider culture better representing and listening to minorities is a far better offering, which works to serve minorities and everyone else alike, rather than experiences which are specifically for people on those relevant axes of privilege, whether it be cis privilege or race privilege.

To think of these VR experiences as magical empathy machines is akin to the concept of labelling ‘personal’ videogames by minority creators as empathy games; whilst playing and engaging with a diverse range of experiences is great for any individual, the specific labelling in these cases just serves to reassert who culture thinks games are intended for, and just reasserts who the assumed ‘default’ audience is. (Of course, if we can shift this definition to count Uncharted as an empathy game too, then it’s all cool.)

Again, as Sophie Houlden said:

Ultimately it seems the focus of the piece seems to be that Gender Swap helps cis people empathise with (some) gender dysphoric people, but it is never made clear how it could help anyone who has gender dysphoria. It’s for cis people, it’s so cis people can understand us. We are given no agency – Gender Swap simply isn’t for us, but somehow it’s still about us.

** While we’re on the subject, I also can’t believe it’s been a year since my GDC rant on race representation in games; the first time I’ve spoken openly about “being an ethnic minority”, after a lifetime of mostly ‘hoping no-one notices’. This was kind of a weird-but-significant personal milestone, so y’know, I thought I’d mark that here.