Through the Looking Glass: Gender and Empathy in VR Games

Gender and empathy in VR games

Virtual reality is an incredible tool.

There are so many practical applications for technology that can change the user’s perspective and let them see the world through a different set of eyes. Of particular interest are the opportunities afforded to storytellers by the ability to transform the player into a brand new person, and the kinds of experiences VR games can generate as players take new roles. This includes stepping into the shoes of someone of another gender.

When VR gaming is at its best, inhabiting the role of a person of a different gender can expand both a player’s understanding of others and their ability to empathize with the challenges that other people face—opening up a plethora of exciting narrative possibilities.

New Body, New Rules

It can be a little disconcerting to look in a mirror and see someone completely foreign staring back.

One early Oculus Rift demo, GirlMirrorLook, simply places the player in front of a mirror to allow them to explore the concept of having a completely new body in virtual reality—in this case, that of a dark-haired woman. For some male gamers, this demo gave the first insight into what it’s like to take on a new form in gaming, an experience that a reviewer from Polygon found physically disorienting and uncomfortable.

GirlMirrorLook features a female player character, and some male gamers find this difficult to experience.

For many players, learning to perceive the world through the eyes of someone else requires practice. Your brain needs to form connections with a different pair of arms and a different reflection in mirrors. This becomes all the more important considering that most people define themselves to a certain extent by their gender, and taking on a new persona in a game can be difficult for those who have to rethink the impact their gender has on their sense of identity.

In some cases, the concept of taking on an alternate persona within VR can be exquisitely bittersweet. One transgender gamer wrote about her experience with GirlMirrorLook, saying that it was at once incredibly freeing to finally see herself in the kind of body she craved, and horribly disappointing to be so poignantly reminded of what she was missing out on in the real world.

To a certain extent, all gamers have to learn to be comfortable taking on different appearances within VR games. It can take time, and patience, to come to terms with all of the confusion and potential heartbreak that can come from taking on a body with different dimensions, societal expectations, and norms from your own.

Developing Empathy Through a New Perspective

With the potential that VR has as a tool for creating empathy, many game developers are seeking ways to use virtual reality to communicate an important message about what life is like for others. With any luck, VR can help break down the barriers between various communities as people get better at seeing others’ points of view.

It’s no secret, for example, that the video game community often struggles with hearing the voice of female gamers. A medium that has traditionally been labeled as a pastime for young men, many male gamers still find it difficult to believe that women play video games—despite the fact that, according to some studies, as many as 52% of gamers are female.

Pixel Ripped is a game about a female gamer, commenting on the evolution of gaming over the past few decades.

Enter Pixel Ripped (previously titled Pixel Rift), a game which pays tribute to the history of gaming while feeding into the nostalgia many gamers feel for the game consoles of the past. In Pixel Ripped, players inhabit the body of a young gamer as she grows up, sneakily playing a handheld game console in school while trying to avoid the teacher’s watchful eye.

It’s no accident that Pixel Ripped features a female protagonist. The game doesn’t draw explicit attention to the gender of its lead character, nor does it beat the player over the head with a message about gender equality in gaming. But by simply encouraging players to experience the game as a female, without any wider commentary, the game provides a subtle insight into the fact that male and female gamers really aren’t all that different—they often have the same interests and experience the same challenges as a result of their interest in games.

Lead developer Ana Ribeiro describes how Pixel Ripped is inspired by her own life experiences.

Through simply placing male gamers in the body of a female, the game allows its players to develop more empathy for others. When a VR game does a good job with gender identity, it can help players to think of life outside of their own body.

Creating a Comfortable Experience

While there’s plenty that can be learned from inhabiting the body of another person in VR, regardless of gender, it can definitely be difficult to get a handle on at first.

To try and lessen the extent to which players feel uncomfortable or disoriented, developers are looking to find ways to introduce a character’s body in a safe setting, giving players the opportunity to explore and grow comfortable with their avatar at the start of a virtual experience. In Loading Human, it’s expected that the player will find it unusual to take on a new face and persona. As such, one of the early tasks in the game involves exploring the body of Prometheus in a mirror, creating a similar experience to that of GirlMirrorLook.

Taking the experience further, though, Loading Human invites players of all genders to truly inhabit the role of a male character, not just by watching their new reflection move, but also by interacting with the mirror and their body in a decidedly masculine manner—they are tasked with shaving.

Shaving in Loading Human helps the player develop an understanding of their new face and identity.

Performing this action gives the player a reason to spend more time in front of the mirror than they might otherwise do, helping to build a connection with their new body and identity. It also helps the player come to terms with the gender identity they’ll inhabit in the game—something which is useful for players of all genders, as it helps teach them about their character. The more you identify with Prometheus, the more you feel the weight of his romantic and family relationships, which play a pivotal role in the narrative of the game.

Through giving players the chance to explore their new body, Loading Human helps gamers to more completely invest in the roleplay experience that’s at the heart of the game.

The Freedom of a New Identity

As players get used to this concept of inhabiting a new body in new ways, it will become a standard part of gaming to think more about the kind of identity a player is taking on and the role they play within a digital community. This will hopefully lead players to think more about what it means to be somebody else, both within a game world and outside when they re-enter reality.

With any luck, VR gamers will increasingly gain appreciation for those whose experiences are different based on gender, physical appearance, and background by embodying new personas through the perspective-shifting technology at the heart of virtual reality.

Debuting as a launch title alongside the PlayStation VR, the first chapter of Loading Human will be available from October 13, and will appear on other VR platforms soon afterward. To try the game for yourself, preorder it now.


Michelle Peniche

Pokemon catcher, coffee lover, part time road tripper.

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