Using Virtual Reality to Examine the Racial Attitudes of Educators

Researchers from the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory, part of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the Center for Advanced Virtuality at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have updated a computational model to better understand our behavioral choices, by way of a video game simulation of a discriminatory racial encounter between a Black student and her White teacher.

The game, called “Passage Home,” is used to help understand the attitudes of PreK-12 educators, with the eventual goal of providing an innovative tool for clinicians to better understand the behavioral choices adolescents make when encountered with racial injustice. Experiments from “Passage Home” revealed that players’ existing colorblind racial attitudes and their ethnic identity development hindered their ability to accurately interpret racist subtexts.

The interactive game puts the player into the first-person perspective of “Tiffany,” a Black student who is falsely accused of plagiarism by her White female English teacher, “Mrs. Smith.” In the game, Mrs. Smith holds the inherently racist belief that Black students are incapable of producing high-quality work as the basis of her accusation.

Users navigate the discriminatory encounter with the teacher, and the ways in which they respond influence the outcome of the game. The developers say that this approach simulates how people think about race and applies a theoretical framework informed by sociology, cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and human-computer interaction to develop racial and ethnic identity representations.

“There has been much focus on understanding the efficacy of these systems as interventions to reduce racial bias, but there’s been less attention on how individuals’ prior physical-world racial attitudes influence their experiences of such games about racial issues,” says MIT Ph.D. student Danielle Olson, the lead author on the paper presenting the research.

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  1. Very interesting use of VR. We definitely need more “show and tell” ways to bring light to implicit bias and passive non-racist (as opposed to active anti-racist) behaviors. Is there any chance that you could share where we could get a copy of “Passage Home”? You should think on making it available through SideQuest so people could upload and use the app with their Oculus Quests. The process is simple and free. Thanks for a great share!

  2. MIT Ph.D. candidate Danielle Olsen is doing some innovative projects. Last year I came across her work which focused on the convergence of STEM+A=STEAM. She started a program Nique=Chic+Geek and uses Dance as a medium for integrating the Arts with STEM. She also runs an afterschool STEAM program. Kudos to her and her forward thinking.

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