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How Could People Use Superpowers?

7 February, 2013


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MessageToEagle.com - Games could be designed to train people to be more empathetic in the real world, according to experiments conducted by researchers at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Laboratory (VHIL).

A game, in which people could subconsciously identify as a "do-gooder" with a superpower in virtual reality, has been designed by Jeremy Bailenson, an associate professor of communication; Robin Rosenberg, a clinical psychologist and Shawnee Baughman, Stanford communication student.

"We thought about giving them X-ray vision, but that was a little creepy," said Bailenson, director of the VHIL.

"We considered the ability to breathe underwater, but that didn't seem like much of a superpower. In the end, flying like Superman easily registered, and it best leveraged the unique capabilities of the lab."

One at a time, 30 men and 30 women entered the simulator and strapped on a set of goggles that transported them into a digital cityscape. A woman's voice then explained their mission: A diabetic child is stranded somewhere in the city, and you must find him and deliver an insulin injection.

The participants left the ground - either controlling their flight by a series of arm motions, like Superman, or as a passenger in a helicopter. The experiment was set so that two minutes into the simulation, no matter what mode of transport, the subject found the sick child.



After removing the virtual reality goggles, each person then sat with an experimenter to answer a few questions about the experience. This questionnaire, however, was a ruse: During the interview, the experimenter would "accidentally" knock over a cup filled with 15 pens - a standard test for gauging empathy.


Virtual superpowers encourage real-world altruism. Credits: Stanford University


The superhero group not only pitched in first, they also picked up about 15 percent more pens on average. While everyone who flew like Superman picked up some pens, six participants who rode in the helicopter failed to offer any help at all.

The data show that heroic behavior in a virtual environment can transfer to altruistic behavior in the real world. The significance of being able to fly like Superman, however, isn't totally clear, according to Bailenson.

"We want to have a more precise understanding of why this occurs," he said. "What's more important for encouraging altruistic behavior: being able to fly, or being active in choosing to help?"

"It's very clear that if you design games that are violent, peoples' aggressive behavior increases," Bailenson said. "If we can identify the mechanism that encourages empathy, then perhaps we can design technology and video games that people will enjoy and that will successfully promote altruistic behavior in the real world."

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See also:
Matrix Dilemma - Do Humans Live In The Ultimate Computer Game Of The Superior Ones?

The Reality Deck: Virtual Reality As Never Experienced Before!

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