An early facet of my research in graduate school revolved around "serious games", or the use of video game technology to convey a serious topic. Although my own foray into this area of work targeted the high drop-out rate among first-generation college students, there have been countless attempts among computer scientists and psychologists alike to intervene in matters of obesity, low self-esteem, anxiety, exercise, and other topics among game-loving populations (read: students). The degree to which these games feel immersive can depend on a number of factors that are directly relevant to our psychological evaluation of a situation while using technology. Melanie Green, for one, has developed a successful body of research on narrative transportation, or the loss of one's sense of surrounding while immersed in a fictional or alternative world. Such transportation may occur even in technologically removed situations (e.g., poor graphics, character mobility control). To cite one of my favorite books on this topic,

"Technological developments powering virtual worlds are accelerating, ensuring that virtual experiences will become more immersive by providing sensory information that makes people feel that they are 'inside' virtual worlds. [...] Virtual experiences are no longer embodied just by hunting and pecking on a keyboard or using a joystick: digital characters now move in tandem with players as they jump around, point guns, and swing racquets, golf clubs, and baseball bats. [...] We are at the early stages of a dramatic shift in 'cyber-existence' -- think of it as the difference between 2-D and 3-D, between the merely interactive and the fully immersive."

-- Blascovich & BailensonInfinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution (pp. 2-7)

The use of immersive virtual environments (IVEs) to convey serious topics to their players is not new; however, it is still a rapidly emerging area of study. Only a few years ago, I was lucky enough to experience firsthand an IVE designed to look like an apartment ravaged by fire. The player, as an observer within that apartment, must decide how to escape unharmed -- and as easy as that might sound while safely removed from such a virtual situation, it was all too easy to lose touch with reality outside the headset and to succumb to the feeling that you (well, me), as the player, were in grave danger. (For a summary of research on fire simulations through IVEs, click here.)

The development of "newsgames"

However, a more recent development in serious gaming is that of "newsgames", or the use of IVEs to convey aspects of the news to psychologically, emotionally, and/or geographically distanced users. Researchers at the University of Southern California have developed a game called Project Syria, in which players are thrown into a day in the life of a Syrian refugee. Members of the Project Syria team traveled to Syria in the midst of recent political turmoil to capture footage and firsthand experiences of daily life in a war-ravaged zone.

But why, you might ask, should such a venture be necessary?

Psychic numbing describes the social psychological phenomenon in which individuals, when faced with tragedy on a mass scale, experience a numbed sense of compassion or motivation to intervene (Slovic, 2007); however, when shown a single victim of homicide, hunger, or disease, individuals are more likely to take action by donating to a particular cause or feeling an increased sense of responsibility, regardless of geographic distance from the tragedy at hand (Fetherstonhaugh et al., 1997; Kogut & Ritov, 2005; Small, Loewenstein, & Slovic, 2007).

This effect, which has been appropriately named “compassion fatigue,” suggests that the value of saving a life decreases as psychic numbing increases -- that is, as the size of the group in need of assistance grows, compassion toward this group decreases (Västfjäll, Peters, & Slovic, 2007).

In my own research, I have found evidence of compassion fatigue as it relates to disaster virality (i.e., the rapid or widespread transmission of information -- here, regarding disasters): As I will demonstrate in research presented at this February's Society for Personality & Social Psychology annual conference (SPSP; Long Beach, CA), the magnitude of human harm -- that is, the numbers of casualties and injuries resulting from a natural or manmade disaster -- are irrelevant when predicting disaster virality, particularly among wealthy countries such as the U.S. When we hear that hundreds of thousands of children have had to flee violence in Syria, the result is something akin to numbing. Genocides in Africa, the slaughter of thousands by Boko Haram -- these are mere blips on our news radars while our focus instead rests on pop culture, corporation hacks, single shootings, and weather monstrosities.

And so because we, with the entitlement that naturally stems from lives of safety and certainty, cannot place ourselves in the situations experienced by many in violent circumstances around the world, innovations such as Project Syria become something of a blessing. Psychologically, they place us outside of our comfort zone while maintaining our typical and ever-present physical boundaries. They make possible emotions such as empathy, shock, and compassion when neither our news sources nor our social circles emphasize the catastrophes occurring around the world with every passing day.

In science fiction, IVEs have often been presented as a pastime, game, or method of interpersonal communication; however, research is now bringing this medium of engagement to an entirely new level -- a level that boasts broad societal impacts.