Armchair Activists: How Virtual Reality is Creating Positive Social Change

Armchair Activists: How Virtual Reality is Creating Positive Social Change

we think of travel it’s easy to forget that those six
little letters are neither optional nor pleasurable for all. Across
the world more than 65 million people have been forced to flee
their homes due to crisis – the highest figure since the Second
World War. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 20 people are
forcibly displaced every minute. Behind every headline of conflict
and catastrophe there are stories of anger, despair, survival and
hope that are difficult to capture in a news report. Yet through
virtual reality, these voices can not only be heard, but also

If 2017 was dubbed the year that VR got real, then in 2018 it is
truly entering the zeitgeist. High-end, high-tech headsets such as
the Oculus Rift have been joined on shop shelves by the more
affordable – albeit less comfortable – Google Cardboard, which sets
users back under a fiver. Far from being used purely for gaming,
the headsets are proving invaluable in industries as diverse as
urban planning and porn. They’re breathing life into
, training surgeons and guaranteeing a front-row seat at
your favourite gig – unless you’re busy climbing (virtual) Everest,
that is. Little wonder Mark Zuckerberg has hailed VR as “the new
communication platform” – by 2025 it’s estimated that its market
could be worth over $80billion.

Offering an immersive, distraction-free experience, VR is among
the modern media’s most powerful storytelling tools. Unlike
traditional mediums – newspapers, films, even (or perhaps
especially) the internet – headsets force users to disconnect from
their immediate surroundings, making for a more invested,
emotionally stimulating experience. Speaking at a TED Talk in 2015,
the immersive artist Chris Milk christened VR “the ultimate empathy
machine”. “We become more connected,” he said, “and… more human.”
A study the same year carried out at Stanford University confirmed
that those who learned about another person’s perspective virtually
were more likely to act on what they had seen than those simply
given the same information.

It is for this reason that the technology is proving such an
important tool for charities and lobbyists. A VR fever has spread
among NGOs, with the International Rescue Committee, Nothing But
Nets, Doctors Without Borders and Greenpeace among many embracing
this new form of advocacy. In early 2015 the United Nations Virtual
Reality (UNVR) project was created, dedicated to bringing
humanitarian tragedies to the virtual realm. Their
much-talked-about film Clouds Over Sidra puts viewers in the shoes
of a 12-year-old Syrian refugee. It premiered at the World Economic
Forum in Davos in 2015, where viewers reportedly removed their
headsets in tears, and has so far been translated into 15 languages
and raised more than 3.8billion dollars – double the donations

The award-winning filmmaker Gabo Arora was part of the team
working on the project. “Many misconceptions are perpetuated by
traditional media narratives of refugees and others less fortunate
than us,” he says. “VR shows a fuller picture [and] lets such
people invite you into their world.” A senior adviser to the UN on
immersive technology, Arora is also the founder of LightShed, which
focuses on creating positive social change through emerging
technologies. Like teleportation, he says, VR “makes ordinary
experiences extraordinary”. Viewers are often moved by the shared
humanity that it reveals between themselves and people they had
thought were somehow different. “The fact that my content is about
something meaningful and relevant to many policy debates leaves
people stupefied,” Arora continues. “I feel a deep responsibility
that these stories are reaching decision-makers and moving people
who normally wouldn’t know anything about them into action.” Arora
has worked with the UN on several other films, including Waves of
Grace (2015), which follows Decontee, a Liberian Ebola survivor who
uses her immunity to help children orphaned by the deadly disease.
My Mother’s Wing (2016) charts a mother’s attempt to cope with the
loss of her two children in a shelling attack on a school in

More recently, Amnesty International partnered with Al Jazeera
to create a VR documentary on the Myanmar refugee crisis. Launched
in October 2017, I Am Rohingya tells the story of Jamalida Begum
and her two children in the Kutupalong refugee encampment in
Bangladesh. For Conor Fortune, the senior communications adviser in
crisis response at Amnesty International, this tale of resilience
in the face of adversity is all the more impactful for being told
through VR. “Even when journalists and humanitarian agencies are on
the ground, concerned people living far from the action often just
hear endless statistics and expert opinions rather than the voices
of those affected,” he says. “Even if a person is thousands of
miles away, our goal is to make that human connection and take
another individual’s injustice personally, to the point where they
feel empowered to speak out.”

To understand the true potential of VR, we perhaps need to think
of it less as a new technology and more as a way of interacting
with the world. Ernest Cline’s 2011 dystopian novel Ready Player
One – which hits the silver screen this year – depicts a future in
which people have turned to the virtual reality simulator Oasis to
avoid facing poverty, pollution and societal problems. Yet far from
letting us retreat from the world, the virtual realm has in fact
become a platform for building solidarity across social and
geographical boundaries. With 360° vision, we don’t need to travel
far to angle for change.