“It’s not that they can’t see the solution. They can’t see the problem.”G.K. Chesterton

We’ve heard it a hundred times: VR is an empathy machine. Well, those of us who attend VR conferences and events have heard it a hundred times, anyway. But is it true? What if it is, in fact, dead wrong? Can VR actually decrease empathy in users instead of increasing it? If so, what should we do about that? What can we do?

This is one of many sticky ethical issues facing all of us in the VR industry. Often there are no clear answers, just lots of questions begetting still more questions. However, lack of conclusion or consensus doesn’t mean we should ignore the issues; rather, it means we must take an even closer look to understand what’s really at stake. At best, this conversation will help us direct the future of educational uses of VR in positive directions. At minimum, it will help us do what we can to avoid the most egregious mistakes. But enough preamble; let’s explore seven relevant and related ethical issues, one by one.

1. Can VR decrease empathy?

Immersive video games, the type often played in VR, negatively impact emotional and psychological development in children. While the debate rages on, the evidence supports a causal link between playing violent video games and subsequent aggressive behaviors. For example, in the game Grand Theft Auto, players drive dangerously, routinely kill pedestrians, crash into buildings, go to strip clubs, assault prostitutes, and more, with little lasting impact on game play. This has the effect of desensitizing players to these actions in real life, decreasing their empathy for other living human beings and increasing the likelihood of aggression and violence. One study even showed increased tolerance of sexual harassment in boys after having played Grand Theft Auto. One recent study explores the connection between students’ cognitive development and VR.

In another example, game developers are often faced with the following or similar dilemmas. Along with nearly infinite other game-play options, developers can allow players to have the ability to kill a friendly virtual dog by, say, throwing it off a roof during game play in a given scene. The development team must decide whether or not to have the same dog reappear unharmed in the next scene. Would this desensitize the user to violence toward dogs? Would a young person learn the consequences of killing an animal once they leave the virtual world? Who decides the consequences of VR content development? What role do developers play in creating ethical worlds? Can all users easily distinguish between real-world and virtual-world consequences?

At the same time, as some researchers have argued, games also teach good behaviors such as having fun, competing well with friends, socialization, building community, leadership, regulating feelings, challenge and mastery, and learning. Are these positives enough to counteract the negatives? How impactful and relevant are these benefits as compared to the risks? How can we build and distribute fun games that support these good behaviors while eliminating the potential negative impacts?

Admittedly, I’m discussing video games in general here, and not just VR games. However, games are one of the primary uses for VR, even in educational settings. Further, the risks could be magnified due to total visual and auditory immersion, temporarily tricking young minds into thinking they really are interacting with others in virtual worlds but without consequence. Fair enough, but do educational games pose the same risks as the extreme game examples like Grand Theft Auto? Certainly not, at least in scope; but if, in examining the extreme cases, we uncover serious risks, is it not possible—probable even—that those same risks exist, albeit to a lesser extent, in less extreme VR games as well? Plenty of anecdotal evidence supports the idea that aggressive and violent behavior such as bullying and sexual harassment are frequent occurrences in VR (just ask any female gamer). It’s not a big leap to assume that if it’s common online and common in the real world, the former may exacerbate frequency or degree in the latter. Even solely virtual violence toward others is completely unacceptable.

The truth is that we simply don’t know the full impacts and causality, and maybe never will. Further, there is scant research supporting either side of this argument for educational VR games. At minimum, we need to actively and publicly debate these questions instead of simply forging ahead oblivious to the risks involved.

2. Is VR dangerous for children?

In last month’s Metafocus column, I explored the safety risks of VR for children. Even VR headset manufacturers admit their headsets may not be safe for children’s developing eyes, smaller heads, and malleable brains. The long-term effects are as yet unknown. (To save space in this article, I’ll just let you read last month’s column if you’re interested.) Once again, the big question at stake is this: When there are so many unknowns, is it ethical to just plunge ahead without more research and data?

However, the counterargument uses similar logic: When the benefits are potentially so great and the demand so high, and with the opportunity to gain an educational edge in a hyper-competitive market, is it ethical to wait years for more research and data? Further, how could we stop or slow progress even if we wanted to?

3. Are there better ways to learn?

While VR is exciting and new and has a definite wow factor, and while there certainly are educational benefits, the technology is still in its nascent stage. Again, I’ve explored this at length in a prior Metafocus article, using parody to show the limitations of VR.

Even if children can learn through VR, are there better, more efficient, and more cost-effective ways to learn? What’s the opportunity cost of using VR in the classroom in 2017? Should we direct funds to other proven technologies and programs? 

What’s the opportunity cost of not using VR in the classroom in 2017? If we direct funds to other technologies and programs, will our students fall behind others who already have access to VR? How could we study the effects of VR in schools to determine its usefulness?

4. If VR is used in schools, is it simply helping rich kids and developed nations to realize an even bigger advantage?

For the foreseeable future, VR will be expensive. This means rich kids will get to play and poor kids won’t. Similarly, VR has the potential to level the educational playing field around the world in the long term. In the sci-fi novel Ready Player One, kids from all over the world attend school only in VR, with the same opportunities, give or take. However, that future (or one like it) is still a long way off. In the meantime, poor kids, poor communities, and poor countries will not have access to the same VR devices as rich ones. If the answer to ethical question number 3 above is “No, VR is the best way to learn” (or if that becomes the answer within the next decade or two), then realistically, there will be VR haves and VR have-nots. The VR haves will experience many educational benefits and advantages, while the VR have-nots will not. Is this fair? Will this help produce a just world?

On the other hand, do we need to wait until the entire world can afford a technology before at least some of us begin using it? Would it not be better for some to be able to use it now, a few more next year, still more the year after that, until the majority of the planet eventually has access to the technology? This is how we’ve adopted smartphones and the Internet worldwide. Some users are better than none, from this perspective. In fact, is it even conceivable for a new technology like VR to improve and become affordable and ubiquitous any other way?

5. Is VR content Anglo-centric and male-centric?

If so, does this put off, alienate, or give a disadvantage to people who are not white males, both as employees in the VR industry and as consumers of VR content?

The short answer to both is yes. The same pervasive, white, male, “brogrammer” culture that inhibits workplace diversity (as I discussed in a previous Metafocus article—that’s the last link to my own articles, I promise) also limits diversity in the content created. Conversely, diverse teams create more diverse content that attracts a larger, more diverse audience. For example, 20-something, straight, white, cisgender males almost never create 50-something, lesbian women of color as video game heroines, or even as minor characters. For that matter, video games primarily include young, muscular, white male heroes and young, overly sexualized female minor characters, such as damsels in distress. As a result, hardly anyone except young white males has any interest in video games.

The real question here is: What can we do about it? How can we create a more diverse and welcoming industry, and how can we create more diverse and welcoming content?

6. Who has access to user information, and what is being done with that data?

Facebook (Oculus) and Google (Daydream) make money using the personal information and behavioral data they collect from users. Exactly what data is being collected? Do they have the right to do this? What do Facebook and Google do with the information? Who truly owns the data? Should we be able to opt out of this data collection? How can we regulate and police this practice?

7. Who makes the rules, and who polices them?

Another ethical concern is creating VR for social spaces (i.e., social VR). When social VR becomes prevalent in society, who makes the rules of the social spaces? Are these rules the same as in the real world? Are the rules the same as in traditional 2-D social spaces, massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, or social media platforms? Is it incumbent upon the creator to have a “bouncer” type person to prevent bullies from having their way? Who decides when someone has violated the social VR rules and is therefore “kicked out” of the space? How will VR natives (i.e., people born recently and in the future who will only know life with VR) learn social norms and ethical considerations? Is it acceptable, manageable, and/or simply inevitable for social norms and ethical considerations to evolve rapidly and beyond our control with the spread of VR?


The above questions have no easy answers. In fact, only a handful of people have even begun wrestling with them. A good place to start is creating a task group of industry experts similar to what is being done in artificial intelligence (AI) through the IEEE. We have an opportunity to consciously choose where we want this nascent VR industry to go and how we decide to employ VR in our schools. If we wait another decade or two before truly engaging with these questions as educators, developers, designers, and entrepreneurs, our collective path will already be set, and any potential damage will already be done. 

While the scenarios above outline a few of the more obvious ethical dilemmas, this is by no means an exhaustive list. What other ethical issues do you see with VR? What are the choices we face? What do you think we should do about it, if anything? Let us know in the comments.