The central argument of this video essay is that traditional cinematic narration delivers story information by controlling viewers’ attention, in a way that simultaneously creates situational understanding and foregrounds particular characters’ emotions and needs. This engenders what commonly goes by the name of empathy. (The term empathy has been used to mean a range of things, from vicarious responses to characters in stories to what psychologists call theory of mind. This video essay adopts the conception of empathy espoused by VR advocates, which is, essentially, altruistic concern, arising from perspective taking.)
Any kind of viewer interactivity, including 360 VR’s rather limited look-around capacity, cedes control of viewers’ attention and introduces distractions. Both of these effects inevitably compromise viewers’ narrative involvement. VR does offer another kind of involvement, in exchange: a sense of being immersed in a particular space. In some circumstances, this may create a sense of connection to or intimacy with documentary subjects. Nevertheless, by doing away with the frame by which filmmakers guide viewers’ attention, the VR form inevitably diminishes documentaries’ capacity to create a sense of emotional involvement with the people they depict. This is exactly contrary to the claims of its advocates.
This is a complicated theoretical argument, but it deals with moving image techniques and emotional effects that are easily demonstrated. That is the reason for presenting the argument in the form of a video essay, instead of as a conventional written essay.
There are several relevant research findings that are not included in the video essay, since they do not lend themselves to visual demonstration and would have distracted from the main argument. I include these here, as supplementary notes. For their relevance to be understood, they need to be read after viewing the video essay.
1. The bottleneck of attention
We can easily play a game, explore a virtual environment, have an aesthetic experience, and empathize with someone else, but not very well at the same time, because attention is limited and focused. Jeremy Bailenson’s VR lab at Stanford created a learning game in which people would learn about ocean acidification by manipulating objects in a virtual undersea environment. The researchers discovered that the more manipulation subjects did, they less they learned, and vice versa. The reason is the bottleneck of attention. To address this problem, Bailenson’s team resorted to a back and forth between interaction and explanation, very much like the back and forth between gameplay and cut scenes in Last of Us. (Incidentally, it is interesting to note that some genres, like horror, do seem to allow for a kind of dual focus. Horror is one of the four genres on Within’s VR site. The other three are music, animation, and documentation.)
Reference: Bailenson, J.N. (2018). Experience on Demand: What Virtual Reality Is, How It Works, and What It Can Do. New York: W.W. Norton.
2. Transfer of excitation
Psychologist Dolf Zillmann discovered that arousal spills over from one stimulus to nearby sensations, coloring how they are experienced. This is quite evident in video games. For example, Last of Us cut scenes are pretty weak, as movies go, but the gameplay in which they are embedded is physiologically and psychologically exciting. That excitement transfers to the cut scenes, to make them seem more moving to players. The cut scenes, in turn, make the gameplay seem more meaningful and worthwhile. The same effect is very likely at work in VR experiences like The Displaced. People interpret the “wow” factor of visceral immersion as empathy, but the key factor is probably arousal. (Incidentally, the “wow” factor of 360 VR is pretty short-lived. After 11 minutes of The Displaced, most viewers have had their fill. They sometimes describe the movie itself as “pretty boring.” In contrast, after 11 minutes of watching Babel or playing Red Dead Redemption, people are typically hungry for more.)
Reference: Bryant, J., & Miron, D. (2003). Excitation-transfer theory. In J. Bryant, D. Roskos-Ewoldsen, & J. Cantor (Eds.), Communication and emotion: Essays in honor of Dolf Zillmann (pp. 31-59). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
3. The drawbacks of simulation
Wheelchair-for-a-day experiences have positive effects: they engage people, stimulate discussion, and generate warm feelings and altruistic impulses toward the handicapped. But they can have dangerous unintended consequences, as well: they lead to pity and guilt, self-orientation and smugness, frustration and fatigue, and a corresponding tendency to avoid people in wheelchairs. On the whole, some research suggests, conventional disability simulations “serve to constitute and reproduce, rather than disrupt, disability oppression.” Distressing simulations are particularly dangerous in this regard. VR simulations like Carne y Arena quite likely have the same drawbacks.
Citation: Nario-Redmond, Michelle & Gospodinov, Dobromir & Munoz-Geoghegan, Angela. (2017). Crip for a Day: The Unintended Negative Consequences of Disability Simulations. Rehabilitation Psychology. 62. 10.1037/rep0000127.
4. VR vs. traditional perspective-taking.
A team at Bailenson’s VR lab created a game simulating becoming homeless (2018). The player-protagonist has to sell property to avoid eviction, live out of a car, then spend a night on a city bus. An experiment compared this to a first-person written account, relating more or less the same story. For example, one episode involves finding a toothbrush in a messy car. The VR experience requires viewers to look around to locate the toothbrush; the written account asks readers to imagine this experience. The written and VR narratives prompted similar levels of self-reported empathy and distress, but the VR experience led to a higher likelihood of participants signing a petition to support affordable housing for the homeless and had a longer-lasting effect. The researchers’ explanation is that interactions with a VR environment result in embodied cognitions. However, the visuality of the VR version is a confounding factor. A better test would be the VR experience against a traditional cinematic narrative, with close-ups and a switching vantage point, like Babel. In that comparison, it seems quite likely that the conventional movie would win, hands down.
Reference: Herrera, F., Bailenson, J.N., Weisz, E., Ogle, E. & Zaki J. (2018) Building long-term empathy: A large-scale comparison of traditional and virtual reality perspective-taking. PLoS ONE 13(10): e0204494. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0204494
Video Essay Credits and Image Sources:
Franklin & Marshall College
Cinema and Television Sources
Babel (A. Gonzalez Iñárritu, 2006)
Dark Tourist, S1E1 (Netflix, 2018)
360 VR Sources
Clouds over Sidra (Within, 2015)
Enter North Korea (CNN VR, 2019)
700 Sharks: Into the Pack (Within, 2018)
The Displaced (New York Times, 2015)
Paris Vigil (New York Times, 2015)
YouTube and Vimeo Sources
How VR Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine (TED, 2015)
Brené Brown on Empathy (The RSA, 2013)
Seniors Try VR for the First Time (VR Scout, 2018)
A Day in a Wheelchair Challenge (Ariel Ng, 2013)
Carne y Arena, BBC News Aircheck (BBC, 2018)
Other Online Image Sources
www.theatlantic.com (Feb. 2017)
www.internationaljusticeproject.com (11 July 2012)
www.dailymaverick.co.za (15 Dec. 2016)
www.ascmag.com (30 June 2017)
www.latimes.com (28 Nov. 2017)
BIO: Dirk Eitzen is Professor of Film & Media Studies at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He has produced a dozen documentaries, including The Amish & Us (1998) and Save Our Towns, Save Our Land (2000), which both aired nationally on U.S. public television. His scholarly work includes numerous theoretical essays on documentary including, most recently, “The Duties of Documentary in a Post-Truth Society” (in Cognitive Theory and Documentary Film, eds., Catalin Brylla and Mette Kramer, 2018).