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OU faculty use VR to study empathy

Fri Jun 25, 2021 at 11:17 AM

Zexin Ma, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication, Journalism, and Public Relations, is a health communication scholar. Her primary research goal is to understand the use of media and messages to promote public health. 

“My research develops message strategies to effect changes in human health behavior. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been exploring ways to encourage mask-wearing and vaccination,” said Ma. 

Ma was drawn to virtual reality (VR) during her graduate studies at the University of Maryland. She was interested in how VR could influence the persuasive effects of stories in the health and prosocial contexts. Since joining Oakland University in 2018, she has been continuing to explore the impact of VR. Using the e-Learning and Instructional Support VR lab, Ma and assistant professor of nursing Lan Yao tested the feasibility of a role-playing video game to promote empathy in nursing students, focusing on immersiveness and perspective. 

“The basic idea of this study is to see if playing a role-playing video game in VR would improve nursing students’ empathy when breaking bad news to patients,” said Ma. 

Ma and Yao invited 69 nursing students to play "That Dragon, Cancer," a narrative-focused video game that was produced by two parents who lost their young son to cancer. The study focused on chapter seven of the game, “I’m Sorry Guys, It’s Not Good,” which was a moment when the parents were told their child’s cancer was terminal. There were four roles (i.e., dad, mom, doctor, and nurse) in the game, and each student played one role. They were able to hear the conversation from their assigned perspective and also experience the character’s inner thoughts. They also played the game either on VR headsets (high immersiveness) or laptops (low immersiveness). 

“What we found is that playing this game on VR headsets led to higher levels of empathy than on laptops. And this increased empathy was caused by the enhanced spatial presence, which referred to feelings of being immersed in virtual environments.” 

This finding is important because it suggests the promising use of VR to improve empathy in healthcare settings. 

They also found that participants who played the game on laptops reported greater empathy in the healthcare providers’ role than in the patients’ family’s role;  however, those that played on VR headsets experienced no difference in empathy across the two perspectives.

“I’m intrigued by this finding. It seems to suggest that differences in character perspective seem to flatten as the gaming immersiveness increases,” said Ma. 

Ma and Yao published their findings in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, a premier peer-reviewed journal in social networking and VR. Ma said that the study sample was relatively small and hoped to recruit more people and do more testing once in-person research can continue. 

Ma and her colleagues also teach the application of VR in journalism, public relations, and advertising. 

“In our introductory classes, we provide students with VR headsets and ask them to experience storytelling in VR,” said Ma. “The feeling of being there is really powerful. Students are constantly amazed by the immersive experience that made them feel as if they were there, in the midst of the events.”

Ma said immersive stories were promising to provide vivid and engaging narrative experiences to promote important social causes. In particular, immersive technology could help vividly tell the story of foreign issues, refugee challenges, and poor and devastating living conditions, even from thousands of miles away. She said that VR allowed people to see and experience stories in a very real way. 

To read more about Ma and Yao’s findings, read the research they published