According to the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (SCP, 2019), three quarters of the Dutch population experience an increase in disagreement on social issues. Although this research does not show that (negative) polarisation has actually increased, people feel that contrasts are becoming more pronounced. The major concern is that people’s feelings may cause groups to become increasingly harsh towards each other, resulting in a loss of nuance and rise in aggression.
"The goal of the Bubble Games consortium is to narrow the gap between opposing groups and bring back nuance, tolerance and empathy in debates on social issues."
The goal of the Bubble Games consortium is to narrow the gap between opposing groups and bring back nuance, tolerance and empathy in debates on social issues. We believe, and previous projects indicate, that using Virtual Reality (VR) can help create - or bring back - understanding between opposing groups. VR offers the opportunity to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, see what the other sees, hear what the other hears, and hopefully, feel what the other feels. This change of perspective could be the first step people take to come closer together.
In the Bubble Games project, predecessor of our current project, a group of researchers, (social) designers, IT-engineers and municipality employees worked closely together on a case in Meerhoven, a residential district in Eindhoven. This diverse combination of expertise proved to be very effective to tackle the issues between two groups of Meerhoven residents. (Social) designers understand how to work with different stakeholders and use creative techniques to come up with innovative and, most importantly, fitting solutions. Employees from the municipality of Eindhoven are experts in safety and polarisation, and are very aware of sentiments and (social) issues within the district. IT-engineers are able to transform ideas and concepts into functional prototypes that can then be tested and evaluated by the group of researchers. And last but not least, the actual residents shared their experiences, frustrations, aspirations and needs, providing the project with constant feedback and thus acted as the compass for this project.
The Meerhoven case involved two groups of residents, consisting of young adults using the local shopping centre to meet and hang out, and (older) adults living in the apartments above the shopping centre. The two groups have become increasingly harsh towards each other, with youths loitering about until late in the evening, which the older residents perceive as threatening and a nuisance, causing them to call the police. Having the police coming after them resulted in resistance from the youths, leading to a vicious cycle.
An experiment involving VR and a design intervention was developed, context-specific to Meerhoven. This design intervention was inspired by Meet the Soldier (n.d.) and Brandsma (2021), and consisted of three specific steps:
- Help the opposing groups to understand and empathise with each other using VR and 360 degree videos;
- Offer them a design challenge to collaboratively improve their neighbourhood, and;
- Let them present their ideas to an independent authority, (e.g. the mayor), who can provide the group with positive feedback and reinforce the feeling of having contributed positively, together, to their shared neighbourhood.
The experiment showed that this intervention offered a solution for this specific use case, in that participants grew more empathy towards each other (Sleeswijk Visser & Drost, 2022). However, it has also become clear that this intervention is not easily transferable to other contexts: the solution was too case-specific and the cost of development was (unrealistically) high.
Our current project aims to use the knowledge and insights gained to design, develop and evaluate a more generic, accessible and more affordable (hence ‘pocketsize’) tool to bring opposing groups in society closer together. The research question for this project is: How can an accessible and adaptive tool based on virtual or augmented reality be developed to bring groups with divergent, potentially conflicting and polarising views closer together?
In this design-oriented, multidisciplinary research project, design thinking is used to design, develop and evaluate a new, pocketsize tool that is rooted in theory, designed in co-creation, and evaluated in practice.
"With our newly started project, we aim to design and evaluate a cost-effective tool, as well as contribute to improved social dynamics in this district."
Throughout the project, residents of the district Doornakkers in Eindhoven and other relevant parties, such as local police and youth organisations, will participate. Doornakkers is a district in Eindhoven that is undergoing a transition with new houses being built that are mainly occupied by expats. According to the area coordinator of Doornakkers (R. Deelen, personal communication, 2 September 2022) many of the original residents dislike this transition, which emphasises the gap between rich and poor. This results in rising aggression and vandalism. Furthermore, there seems to be a tendency towards right-wing extremism within this district. Especially local youth have been disrupting public order over the past few years, leading to several arrests and emergency regulations. With our newly started project, we aim to design and evaluate a cost-effective tool, as well as contribute to improved social dynamics in this district.