Learning by feeling : evoking empathy with synthetic characters
Virtual environments are now becoming a promising new technology to be used in the development of interactive learning environments for children. Perhaps triggered by the success of computer games, VEs are now seen as an emergent and engaging new way by which children learn experimental sciences and other disciplines. Inhabiting these IVEs there can be agents or intelligent characters, that are responsible for events that happen in the environment and make it not predictive or completely controlled. However, to build such environments, in particular if populated by synthetic characters, one needs to carefully address the problem of how do the learners respond to the characters in the virtual environment. Do learners like the characters? Do learners identify themselves with characters in virtual environments? This relation between learners and characters in virtual environments can be studied in several perspectives. In this paper, we will focus primarily on the issue of empathy as one desirable aspect of the affective interaction between learners and synthetic characters. In particular we will defend that in order for such affective relations to happen, characters should be created and designed taking into account what we call the proximity factor. This is based on the fact that children are found to respond more empathically to those that are perceived as similar to the self than those who are perceived as dissimilar . This appears to be the case when similarity is defined in terms of a shared characteristic, such as sex , race or in terms of shared personal experiences . Thus, designing characters aiming at pedagogical empathic interactions, we should careful address how close the learner will feel with the synthetic characters developed both in terms of situation, behaviour or even physical appearance. In order to illustrate this factor in eliciting emotional reactions to synthetic characters, we will present a specific system called FearNot!. FearNot! was developed to address the difficult and often devastating problem of bullying in schools. By using role playing and synthetic characters in a 3D environment, FearNot! allows children from 8 to 12 to experience a virtual scenario where they can witness (in a third-person perspective) bullying situations. To build empathy into FearNot! we have considered the following components: agent’s architecture; the characters’ embodiment; the environment itself and emotionally charged situations. All these elements were build to allow for a stronger proximity with the user and the system. In this paper we will focus primarily on this problem and report some results achieved in the evaluation done with 127 children and 95 adults on the system.