Moral reasoning is more important than empathy
In January, I gave a talk on social cognition in VR and two different people asked at the end if harassment will end once your VR avatar really looks like you. No. Higher resolution facial feedback will just let your abuser know when they land a direct hit.
But the comment about facial feedback stayed with me. After thinking about it, I realized that people were talking about an idea from a Louis CK bit in 2013:
Specifically, Louis CK’s comments about kids from 0:22 to 0:55
“You know, kids are mean and it’s because they are trying it out. They look at a kid and go 'You’re fat' and then they see the kid’s face scrunch up and they go ‘ooh, that doesn’t feel good to make a person do that.’” – Louis CK
Or, if VR creators hadn’t seen the actual video clip, they knew about the idea from hearing other people paraphrasing Louis CK. For example, Tim Sweeney of Epic Games in a December 2016 interview with The Verge.
“If you insult somebody and you see that they have a sad look on their face, then you’re going to feel really, really bad about that. And you’re probably not going to do it again.” -Tim Sweeney
Let’s set aside the impact on the culture of VR of having a solo comedian hold this much influence over how people in our industry think. Instead, look at the content: Louis CK’s belief is that people will only behave if they experience getting negative feedback from acting like a bully. This sentiment is highly problematic. It relies on people making the right decision because it feels good for them, rather then it being the right thing to do.
Now, I genuinely believe that the warm glow effect is real. When you donate to good causes, give advice to a friend, lend tools to your neighbor, etc, that feels good. However, I think the reason that we should encourage people to behave well and treat others with respect is because it’s the right thing to do, not because they’ll get something out of it.
Photorealism isn’t going to cure harassment
Throwing enough engineering resources to achieve photorealism isn’t going to solve harassment. Teaching people how to behave and setting social norms has much higher and faster returns. Spend your resources to set up social rules and patterns of behavior in your environment that teach people how to act. Give people activities that teach them how to treat one another.
Once people form social connections and feel like they are part of a group, you’ll see more of the behavior that you designed for.
Photorealism decreases likability
Lastly, people don’t even like photorealism. People like animals and cute robots. See my blog post on the uncanny valley and how photorealism reduces liking.
Takeaways for designers:
- Watch Louis CK’s new Netflix special “2017” if you want a preview of what VR creators are going to be saying to each other four years from now.
- VR will not inherently make people better people. However, creating strong social rules and norms for positive behavior in your environment will make people act better.