Virtual Games:  Generating Real Empathy For Faraway Conflict

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Lots of people play video games to escape the real world, but a new type of virtual reality experience does just the opposite. It takes you to the streets of Syria and other conflicts zones gripped by very real violence. But as reporter James Delahoussaye discovers, the new video game could be a useful tool for journalists.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Are they comfortable on your face?

ALLISON BEGALMAN: Yep. That's good.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK.

BEGALMAN: Yeah.

JAMES DELAHOUSSAYE, BYLINE: University of Southern California student Allison Begalman donnes bulky, virtual reality goggles and headphones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

BEGALMAN: Oh, my God.

DELAHOUSSAYE: And in the moment, she is transported to a sunny street corner in Aleppo, Syria. There is a cart selling food, cars and trucks passing by and a group of people circled around a singing little girl. But then...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

BEGALMAN: All of a sudden, there's, like, a bomb that goes off. It's completely full of dust and dirt, and you - I'm sort of walking back and forth.

DELAHOUSSAYE: In this virtual world, Begalman has experienced a mortar shelling from Bashar al-Assad's regime. This is Project Syria, a virtual reality experience built by a team of students at the University of Southern California. The bomb blasts, the destruction, they're all created using the same kind of tools videogame makers use, except that this is not a regular videogame.

NONNY DE LA PENA: In America, we're deeply involved in Syria, but we're very disconnected about what is that place? Who are the people? Why do I care? Why are we there?

DELAHOUSSAYE: Nonny de la Pena is the lead for Project Syria and a long-time journalist in print and film

PENA: I sometimes call virtual reality an empathy generator. It's astonishing to me. People all of a sudden connect to the characters in a way that they don't when they've read about them in the newspaper or watched it on TV.

DELAHOUSSAYE: Pena sent her team to the Middle East to film refugee camps and interview survivors. The audio heard in Project Syria, from the singing girl to the bomb blast, was taken from YouTube videos of an actual mortar strike in Aleppo. What Pena's doing - using virtual reality in combination with actual reporting - is part of a wider landscape of video games being used to explore the news. And they're called, appropriately enough, newsgames.

IAN BOGOST: There's an argument to be made that games are perfect at getting at the systemic problems and challenges in the world.

DELAHOUSSAYE: Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech says games are really good at showing us the complex under belly of stories. Take a game that he helped make - "Oil God." The player controls an oral rich region waging wars and inciting coups.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "OIL GOD")

DELAHOUSSAYE: In playing, the user learns that oil prices are contingent on all sorts of factors rarely mentioned in a story about the price of a gallon of gas.

BOGOST: When you go to the cinema or you turn on the radio and you hear someone's story, you relate to it at a remove. You're not really in their shoes. You're not make choices on their behalf. You're not thrust into their situation.

DELAHOUSSAYE: But in a game, players interact with the real forces making different choices and seeing their consequences. And Bogot says that creates a deeper understanding. In the game, "Oil God," you can go to war and see why oil prices jump. In Project Syria, you can walk straight into a bomb blast to understand a cold reality of the Civil War.

Back at the University of Southern California, student Allison Begalman steps out of the game lab. She says that while she's heard about the war in Syria, she never felt that she could empathize with its refugees until she played this game.

BEGALMAN: You can only understand so much, but when you get to see if for yourself, yes, I'm not actually there, but this is a huge step.

DELAHOUSSAYE: A step, she says, that will lead to more time spent with all kinds of media learning about a complex war in a far off land. For NPR News, I'm James Delahoussaye.

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