Can virtual reality experiences make you more empathetic?

By Livia Hirsch

The night around me is pitch black, it engulfs me. I am in front of the train which pushes me forward. I feel helpless as I see the gates of the camp looming in the distance. I hear guards yelling, dogs barking, and the wheels turning against the metal rails. An alarm starts to blare. A feeling of terror rises inside of me. I am powerless.

In reality, I am sitting at my dining room table, facing large windows that showcase the beautiful canals of Leiden. I was unsure what to expect at the start of the video, I did not believe a two-minute movie could make me feel so many emotions. I was sceptic, yet I approached the process with an open mind.

Ultimately, my computer screen captured me, and held me hostage. It is 1942, and I am immersed in a virtual reality of what it would be like to arrive at the Auschwitz concentration camp in the middle of the night. This is my only VR experience and it stands out to me as I remember feeling as if in a trance.

Now, my emotions are most likely a fraction of what prisoners felt when approaching a concentration camp. I am not trying to compare my feelings to their experience. But, I believe I could better understand the terror they felt thanks to the sound effects and high-quality graphics of the video. Though I was only staring at my computer screen, the video seemed so real. The quality of the video was crucial, if it had been low-quality animation, the experience would not have felt so realistic

Now, virtual reality is a growing field for both journalism and documentary films, but can it make us more empathetic? Despite my brief experience, I suspect it can. However, though it may help build empathy, it does not begin to truly show us the reality of the situation we may be exposed to.

Take my immersive experience. Yes, I did feel fear and trapped, but that cannot compare to the terror that prisoners had felt the last few weeks as they ran and hide from Nazis, afraid for their lives, fearing what would happen next. After all, I only endured two minutes, but we cannot forget about the rest of the journey which leads up to said moment.

Therefore, virtual reality may open our eyes to new situations and help us better understand a life far away from our own. However, we should remember that this is just a second in their life, and though we may now have a better understand of their daily struggles, we cannot claim to have walked a mile in their shoes.