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The virtual reality 9/11 experience is bad, but not for the reasons you'd expect

Why do we love 'empathy games' and hate [08:46]?

There's something very complicated behind the recent negative reaction toward [08:46], a virtual reality "narrative driven experience" about the September 11th terrorist attacks.

Part of it seems like knee-jerk resistance to interactive media tackling sensitive topics, though people have both accepted and praised games that address things like terminal cancergender identity, and the Holocaust. Part of it involves the feeling that we're not far enough from the attack to turn it into fiction, though that's clearly not true for books, movies, and graphic novels. But the most interesting reaction is that this is a horrifying misapplication of one of the most hyped elements of VR: its capacity to create empathy.

After trying [08:46] myself last night, the truth is that it's impossible to tell how we'd respond to a 9/11 simulator, because it's just a bad 9/11 simulator. For a student project developed in three months, it's a competently executed piece of work. But it destroys any sense of disorientation or danger with awkward art design and a handful of non-player characters who constantly butt in to describe the things you're supposed to be feeling. After enough expository dialogue telling you that it's getting hot or you need to find a door, everything begins to feel like a particularly bizarre Call of Duty tutorial level.

The game quickly starts feeling like a bizarre Call of Duty tutorial level

But done well, virtual reality has been suggested as a way to experience a bombing in Syria, or empathize with rape survivors, or put ourselves in any number of other awful situations — nearly always with praise. Why is the empathy that [08:46]'s developers have said they're trying to create any different? It might be that we're especially protective of 9/11, or that other experiences are often live-action video, avoiding the pitfalls of artificial characters and environments. Or, as Kill Screen suggests, it could be that there's already no "shortage of empathy" for the victims. "If there was, was this really the best way to do it?" Kill Screen's writeup asks. "Empathy in VR can easily become a cheap excuse, a one-size-fits-all justification for any and all artistic decisions." As anyone who has ever read a true crime novel knows, there's a fine line between "immersive" accounts and sensational ones.

But the better question is why we're so confident about the value of VR empathy in the first place. VR might give us far more detail and realism than a photograph or essay. It's far easier to evoke fear or disgust. But where photographs and written accounts ask us to focus on the specifics of other people, the current wave of empathy-building VR experiences (or video games) usually prompt us to imagine ourselves in a series of different situations.

There's power in universalized, first-hand experience, but also a kind of emotional flatness, a disincentive to engage with differences in human thought and experience instead of pure factual circumstance. At worst, the negative emotions VR can tap into make it simple agitprop. A decade ago, I might have seen [08:46] not as a curiosity, but as an emotionally manipulative distraction from the very real and complicated problems that the War on Terror had created — a war sustained on constant reminders of 9/11's horror.

There have been positive responses to the game, including suggestions that it could help future generations understand the context of the attacks. And I can imagine a more sophisticated version of [08:46] that's pitched as an artistic experience instead of an empathy-building exercise, removing the burden of delivering some kind of moral good. It's at that point that we'll have to decide whether there's something fundamentally different about VR that makes a virtual disaster experience worse than a film or book — and where to draw the line between understanding and exploitation.