Sat. Oct 1st, 2022

Empathy – the ability to recognize and share the thoughts and emotions of another person – is not just a pleasant ability. This is a critical skill for those who work in certain professions such as doctors and nurses. Empathy at the bedside can go a long way in making patients feel more comfortable, helping them recover, and even making them less likely to complain or sue hospitals. Thus, this is something that not only doctors and nurses need to look for, but also actively learn while studying at school.

What if video games could help with this? Some recent research suggests that this is possible, and that virtual reality gaming may even make people feel more empathetic.

The researchers asked nursing students to play the harrowing game “That Dragon, Cancer,” a point-and-click game about a family whose very young son has a terminal form of cancer. I’m a little sad as I type this, but the test subjects had to play through the entire chapter of the game, titled – ominously – “Sorry Guys, This Isn’t Good.”

A scene from the movie That Dragon, Cancer

The study used a 2×2 design. First, some subjects played the game from the perspective of their parents, while others played it from the perspective of a health care provider who had to deliver the bad news about little Joel and empathize with the parents. Secondly, some players played the game on a laptop, while others got a much more immersive experience playing with an Occulus Go VR headset.

The researchers found that playing in virtual reality actually evoked more empathy for the characters in the game compared to those playing on computers. This coincided with an increase in the messages about spatial presence and emotion that you expect from VR players. The feeling of being physically there with the playable characters resulted in more empathy for the players. Just like playing as a medical provider (as opposed to baby Joel’s parents), but only for those who play on the computer.

These results suggest that VR games can be an effective way for nurses and other medical students to experience and practice being empathetic while doing the unpleasant parts of their jobs, such as delivering bad news to patients. Playing is a safe way to experience this (since no children were harmed in the making of That Dragon, Cancer), and it aligns with some other psychological theories about why we seek out “bad” experiences, such as horror games or tragedies. We do this because we want to test them and test them without consequences. To think and develop strategies for emotionally and mentally dealing with such things if they appear in real life. The study described here didn’t really test whether using VR to expose emotionally charged situations to nursing students would make them more empathetic at work, but it definitely supports that hypothesis. I would like it to be formally studied and tested.

1. Roter D.L., Stuart M., Putnam S., Lipkin M., Styles W. and Inui T. (1997). Models of communication of primary care physicians. JAMA, 270 350–355.
2. Ma, Z., Huang, K.T., & Yao, L. (2021). The possibility of computer role-playing for the development of empathy in nursing students: the role of immersion and perspective. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networks, 24(11), 750–755.

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