Monday, May 5, 2014

Virtual Cows

Virtual Cows

According to a recent article in The "Real" World magazine Stanford University has been working on a program in avatar studies in which participants are put into a virtual world with a virtual avatar, a customizable digital representation of themselves, in the form of a cow. The purpose of the study was to see if empathy could be increased toward the animals by making participants "walk a mile" in the virtual shoes. The experiment lasts for less than ten minutes and, at least from the video the article includes, is relatively simple including eating, drinking and being hit by a cattle prod.

The results from the study show that empathy is in fact increased by entering into an avatar of a cow, which raises a lot of interesting questions about the relations between people and avatars in digital worlds as well as the implication for other mediums where avatars are present such as video games. Its interesting to think that by being subject to the same hardships as a type of creature a participant through an avatar can come to identify or sympathize with the real equivalent of their avatar.

This raises questions about the morality of creating video games like Grand Theft Auto in which the player's avatar is often a drugged out, prostitute murdering, criminal maniac who runs around a virtual town stealing and fighting with the police.

(He's not such a bad guy when you get to know him.)

While I can't pretend to know about the answers to interesting moral questions like these, I can offer you an opportunity to experience (or at least watch) a far more entertaining version of the experiments at Stanford. This particular simulation is called "Goat Simulator 2014" and is by far the most entertaining way you can increase your empathy for goats. Complete with really annoying commentary.



  1. Honestly, I really want to see this happen with people. Like spending a day in a video feed of a muslim country and seeing people as comrades, rather than the enemy. However, I question if we would over-romanticize and/or demonize the idea of simulation. Having all kinds of biases flow through the rift. However, in the end, I do agree that the power of a simulation can and will change the course of human history.

  2. I don;t know if there is a real moral issue with the Grand Theft Auto things. Afterall, many of the people who end up in those kinds of lives were tossed into them at young ages, whether by force or circumstance. Perhaps all moral or ethical issues could dissipate if the payers were instead to simulate how each character got to where they, allowing them to develop a sense of sympathy for those who do end up in those lives

  3. Wow. This is reminiscent of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? We are increasing our empathy - our natural and uniquely human attribute - by plugging in to a virtual world! Do humans feel as electric cows?
    I love how you connect this to Grand Theft Auto and other violent video games. Everyone has heard the argument that violent video games are fostering a violent - or at least less empathetic - generation. I am more convinced of this argument now after hearing about the virtual cows.


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