Healing Isolation & Facilitating Empathy: The Power of Virtual Worlds

I just read a great blog post on the topic of Caring and caregivers in the 21st century that brought be back to one of my favorite topics, the untapped power of virtual worlds/3D game environments for healing, developing community, and learning. The author of the post, Tateru Nino, notes that Second Life‘s community has included a significant percentage of people who are struggling with some type of disability or illness, or who are caregivers and, therefore, limited in their ability to leave their homes to socialize. However, the main focus is to highlight a “game” called Caregiver Village:

“The Unity 3D based game, Caregiver Village, is a … well, if you’ll pardon the portmanteau, ‘edutainment’ game, intended to help divert and relax caregivers, while teaching them valuable skills throughout an engaging and episodic mystery/adventure, sprinkled with mini-games and sporting connections to Facebook. All of that, plus the Web-site supporting caregivers.”  [read more of this post by Tateru Nino]

Tateru Nino illustrates the power of virtual worlds. People who are “shut in” have new environments, relationships and opportunities open to them. These settings can be especially powerful in giving people options to connect when their current life situation limits their ability to do so otherwise.

I think we are only seeing the beginning of the emergence of virtual worlds and other 3D virtual settings (e.g., games) to address a diverse range of needs. Most social workers and other human services professionals have no awareness that these worlds exist and so fail to see the opportunities that they can provide in terms of alleviating isolation, providing settings to try out new behaviors, and giving insight into perspectives other than our own. Good examples of this last point are the Virtual Hallucinations Sim in Second Life, which provides a glimpse into the world of people struggling with schizophrenia, and Against All Odds, the game developed by the United Nations that gives players an experience of what it is like to be a refugee. Completing these experiences provides a participant with an opportunity to experience empathy for another’s experience–we could use more opportunities to learn empathy in our world. For example, I wonder what it would be like if we could give kids an experience that provides insight into how a gay/lesbian youth experiences bullying?

What opportunities to apply this technology can you think of?

Photo, Pondering Lives (where the photographer also writes about the power of virtual worlds to transform isolation), courtesy of Luminis Kanto on Flickr.

7 thoughts on “Healing Isolation & Facilitating Empathy: The Power of Virtual Worlds

  1. Thanks for another fascinating post, Nancy 🙂

    How exciting and wonderful that virtual reality (and 3D games) open these new possibilities into helping not only people with mental illnesses (such as PTSD for veterans – you’ve written and illustrated at least one post on this topic), but also for caregivers (who are often so isolated and could use some help and support) as well as others who could benefit from opportunities to develop more empathy (kids and adults who act as bullies to those who seem different and/or weaker than them).

    I could see how these tools could also be used to educate people on a whole host of different mental and physical illnesses…in other words, so as not to only provide support and skills to the caregivers, but also to help the people who are ill as well as to prepare and educate the caregivers with progressively declining illnesses, such as Alzheimers (in essence, to help them maintain their empathy which could get depleted over time out of sheer exhaustion and lack of support or getting a break).


  2. Thanks, Dorlee. It’s exciting to me as well!

    Virtual worlds are probably the least well known application of technology among our social work colleagues, and so when I share this information with them, they often immediately jump to seeing the dark potential of these worlds, most often asking about people who might want to spend most of their lives these worlds (hiding from the “real world”). Of course every tool has both positive and negative potential…I imagine it’s very scary for people (some of our colleagues) who have anxiety about technology and it’s role in our culture.


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