The power of empathy in Immersive Media

Immersive Media is about building story experiences that shift your point of view.  There is a beautiful quote from Lucy Christopher from Stolen, A letter to my Captor.

“It’s hard to hate someone once you understand them”

When media immerses its audience it has the opportunity to shape belief, and therefore how we act in the world.  While there is no question this can be used to incite the worst of our instincts, there is powerful evidence that positive collaboration, co-operation and profound meaning and purpose can arise from this kind of immersion.  (We are seeing it in the genre of Alternative Reality Gaming, the online phenomenon of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, in crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding start-ups globally).  Jane McGonigal’s beautiful treaty called “Reality is Broken”, is really a call to see how we can use immersive games to fix our real world problems.

Traditional computer games & ARG’s often put you inside the action against your standard “villainous” evil-doers.  They might be Russian, or South African, Muslim extremists or whichever subset of enemies of the West are currently making headlines (although even here games don’t always stereotype, but on the whole the trends are set by the larger gaming businesses.)  Now imagine if you, instead of simply killing all and sundry, had to hide in the guise of your enemy?  You had to learn to speak their language, learn their customs, and meet their families – play with their children.  Could you still pull the trigger so easily?  That’s the premise we’re developing in “Amnesia”.  Without giving some of the twists and turns away, the idea is to turn the popular genre of first-person shooters into an entirely different kind of immersive experience.   The concept is simple.  You wake up, have no idea who you are and find that a lot of people are trying to kill you.  But what if all is not what it seems?  What if, as you progress, you are not even sure just who the enemy is?  How do you get to see your own actions in an entirely new light?

There is a fundamental question, how can you even begin to communicate on a level playing field with your enemy, until you learn to see their intrinsic humanity?  One of the most important lessons that emerged from our documentary Nelson, Mandela Redrawn for History, was Mandela’s understanding that in teaching himself the Afrikaans language he didn’t just engage his guards, he learnt to understand their poetry, their history and their passions.  He not only forged genuine friendships that survived the most indescribably harsh conditions.  He knew this captors as people.  And that, in turn, meant they were forced to do the same.  Years later, when he donned that Springbok jersey on the field of the Rugby World Cup in 1995, he understood so completely the power of symbol to cross a racial and cultural divide.  In one instant he could bridge the chasm of “us” and “them”.  Tactically it remains one of the greatest moments in our planet’s political history, and without doubt because it was so human. Clint Eastwood’s film “Invictus” dramatises this historic tipping point, but today we are emerging into an era of media that doesn’t just “show”, it in fact invites us to experience the shift from “us” to “them” first-hand.

There are a host of beautiful examples of using media to bridge divides, making experience from far-off places visible, authentic and real to audiences who would not ordinarily even have the opportunity to engage with them.  Film maker’s Chris Milk and Nonny de la Pena have both been involved in amazing VR experiences – check out the video here for Project Syria or here for Chris Milk’s TED talk.

If you want to walk in someone else’s shoes and experience empathy there must be, to some degree, a loss of a sense of self.  When you are fully immersed, that experience can literally be life changing (I wrote about it and my experience with the documentary “Amy” on the blog Immersive Media junkie).   Nothing is more exciting to me than the implications that this shifting of understanding, education and ultimately beliefs provides.  One of our smaller projects, but one the proudest moments in my life, was when we developed a game for Jessica Yellin at SAB Miller to reduce drinking in young kids in KZN.  Called You Decide, I have to this day never been part of something that had the feedback and response that the game elicited in the children who played.   You can check out the promo video below.

With only ten students at each of the 50 schools starting off as full-time players, we still managed to record over 60 thousand hits within a matter of weeks.  Those numbers are staggering.

The success of the You Decide project was driven around the premise of how do you shift the narrative so that the audience is the lead character?  I believe that Immersive Media has us poised on a very powerful brink – we can start to play games, watch films and go inside the experiences of our most feared enemies and misunderstood foes – whether that is people or ideas.  We as content creators can embrace a media world that by its nature, will leave us all fundamentally changed.

Brett Lotriet Best is the Creative Director for EdenRage Media, check out their Immersive Media work at  Go on, take a bite!




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