This post was first published on LinkedIn.

According to a biological research done by Spinka, Newberry and Bekoff in 2001, young mammals play in order to survive. Although this play seems purposeless, it is not. It has a function. Play develops animals to flexible kinematic and emotional responses to unexpected events in the (near) future. Through play these mammals ‘train’ to recover emotionally from unexpected stressful situations.

As adult human beings, we seem to have forgotten this purpose of play.

This form of play is increasingly important and can be very valuable for us human beings when confronted with emotions. Emotions drive behavior, but not always the best kind. People tend to fight, flight or freeze when confronted with an unexpected event. Their instincts tells them what to do. Without thinking, an action is triggered because of that emotion. Yes, your instinct might save you in a certain situation. Think about getting out of the house as quick as you can, when the place is on fire.

But in many other cases, especially the ones in which large groups need to reach safety, our first response isn’t the best one. Therefore we design safety protocols. These protocols ensure large groups of people reach safety when for instance a company building is on fire. But these protocols are designed groups of people and may not appeal to your individual fight or flight instinct.

So, how do we make people adopt this behavior? We let them play.


Through the use of games or gamification we can educate and train people in a playful manner. When playing games words like open mindset, creative, fun, unpredictable, interactive and social come to mind. Living by these words as an attitude can make you more resilient towards the future, towards unexpected events. According to Herminia Ibarra, when we adopt a playful attitude we’re more open to a diverse set of possibilities. Training people for this playful attitude, might result in a more creative and innovative workforce.

Virtual Reality

If you want to train people specifically for unexpected events in which emotion plays a big role, you create an experience in which you mimic this emotional trigger. Think of a game in which employees need to act after discovering a fire in one of the companies chemical plants. How do you react? What will you do? Do you flight, fight or do you do something else?

Knowing how you would react in such an emotionally intense situation requires feeling that emotion. A current technological innovation in order to experience such an emotion is Virtual Reality (VR). By putting on a VR headset you are immersed in another environment. As virtual reality is never the real reality, using 360˚ video can get you truly close to the real deal and therefore create very realistic emotional triggers. Experiences from the world of movies can be used, but with a big difference. Instead of the director deciding where to look, you are the director of your own experience.

A new immersive paradigm

Virtual Reality is said to be the ultimate empathy machines, but only under the right circumstances. When using 360˚ video for example, simply copying techniques from the movie industry is not going to help. Looking at a screen (your television) or not even seeing the screen (in VR) are two extremely different ways of experiencing emotions. By displaying video on a screen the director can decide where you should be looking at. Is it a wide angle shot, showing the entire battle field, or a close up, looking at the wrinkled face of Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Those differences don’t exist in VR. When wearing a VR headset, you as a viewer decide where to look. You are there. This requires a new immersive paradigm.

And “viewer” isn’t the best term here. If you are a viewer on that battlefield, and the only thing you can do is looking around, it won’t feel that you are really there. You are just a viewer. In this new immersive paradigm, the viewer becomes the player. To be able to fully experience what you are seeing, you need to be able to act. As a player, you should be able to make choices. Therefore you are one of them. This requires a new and very close collaboration between script writers, directors and game designers.

Training through emotion

This combination of gaming and virtual reality can be used to train for emotionally intense unexpected sitautions. By combining lessons learned from biology, psychology, the movie industry and game design we can create immersive playful training solutions in which emotion is used as a basis for adopting behavior change.

Because emotion often dictates our behavior, we respond in seconds. We tend to fight or flight. But very often, this instinctive behavior is not the best behavior for all parties involved. Taking the nearest exit during a fire might be a good choice, but isn’t when taking that exit blocks the entrance of the emergency services. Through playful VR training, we can let people adopt new behavior after a certain emotional response. Through thinking first, we can let people experience the consequences of a set of choices. After enough hours of training, a new thoughtful response is created.

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