Radical Empathy Foundation Interview

Virtual Reality has always been my least favorite gaming device. No matter how many times I put on those goggles, I never have felt like my virtual entertainment experience was ever enhanced, a couple of potential examples aside. That being said, I’m up for anything having the ability to land a positive impact in the communities, which Radical Empathy Foundation aims to do just that with VR.

I chat with Billy Joe Cain for full insight on this organization!


Chase: What’s your non-profit about?

Billy Joe Cain: Our mission is to end human trafficking in one generation. We use a blended educational program incorporating in classroom materials and an interactive narrative virtual reality story to make those materials come to life.


Chase: Why did you want to commit to this non-profit organization in the first place?

Billy Joe Cain: I’ve been in the interactive industry for over 25 years. A few years ago, I found out my children were being groomed by one of my bosses. The police said he was a sexual predator and there’s no telling what he may have done to my children. Since I was uneducated about this issue at the time, I wanted to use my skills to teach other children and parents what I learned about the dangers of the real world.


Chase: How does VR come into play for this organization’s goal to become effective?

Billy Joe Cain: Our goal is to end human trafficking in one generation. People have been working to do this forever, obviously, with limited results here and there. The best place to start is raising awareness and then providing prevention education. Current best-in-class tools are PowerPoints and videos. Those can be wielded by the best teachers, but they only work if your students are paying attention, and they are limited to the number of people in a room that can interact with those best teachers at one time.

Interactive products can deliver a consistent experience, every time, and provide a baseline of information required to educate. If users want, they can unlock additional information that can expand upon the learning objectives that they find of interest.

Interactive virtual reality, in particular, has the scientifically-proven ability to make people care and can leave a lasting impression on a user and affect the way they feel about an experience they have for a very long time. Numerous university studies show benefits of virtual reality experiences far exceed regular classroom learning. Check out our website for details.

Our virtual reality experience makes the traditional materials come to life in a way not possible in other mediums. Users “become” Lisa, a 14 year old who tells them how she was manipulated and ultimately victimized by her boyfriend, known as a “Romeo Pimp” because he convinced her he loved her.


Chase: Tell us a bit about the VR game REEF has developed to exercise on achieving stated goals!

Billy Joe Cain: Our interactive experience, TRAPPED: A VR Detective Story gives users “agency” and the ability to make decisions while they learn more about how they experience and receive information.

We’ve exhibited and demonstrated TRAPPED to thousands of people across America. Almost every person has shared a profound new understanding of how easy it is to imagine this happening to someone they know. Adults have cried because they learned that their children may be on those slippery slopes, survivor support volunteers of 5+ years have told us they learned new things about how this could happen to anyone, and one older gentleman took off the headset and told us “I’m 55 years old and when I was 12, my uncle molested me. I’ve never told that to anyone.” He said he realized he needed to get some help and that he was ready to go get it.

It’s an honor to help people find clarity and peace, and it’s an honor to help people become educated about this problem. Our ultimate goal for each person is to get them involved in their community, so we can spread awareness and education.


Chase: Could any of this success happen with AR or a regular controller. I’m very much behind your organization’s intentions, but not so much a VR gamer or user. How could you reel in people like me with your game?

Billy Joe Cain: Great question. We began with the idea that it would be awesome to let people use controllers and for them to be very interactive within the virtual world. I could write a book on everything I saw, heard, and learned, but I’ll make it short.

For most people, VR is such a new concept, just getting a headset on is almost as much as you can expect. After many iterations, we removed all controller requirements so the largest number of people possible could use the experience.

We have received hundreds of surveys from our users and it is surprising how many people report that not only have they never used VR, but they have never played a video game. In order to serve the largest group possible, we took all of that into account. No controllers; you just “look” at things and they tell you the story.


Chase: Don’t mean to dip into politics, but a CCN article had depicted games as “virtual boot camps” for mass shooters. In the article, writer Jeremy Bailson believes video games, especially Virtual Reality, is realistic enough to help mass shooters improve their combat skills, since I suppose video games have been mistaken as reality since his 2012 example. What’s your take on this claim?

Billy Joe Cain: There is an international trade association that works to find links between gaming and negative behaviors. The International Game Developers Association (IGDA). I have been a member of that organization for decades and I served as the vice-chair of the Austin Area IGDA for quite some time. We want to know if there are links. So far, no studies have proven anything. There are very real concerns about violence and gaming, but so far it appears that people realize that games aren’t real.

Of course it’s true that games train you to do things and that you can improve real world skills through simulations. There’s no doubt about that. The question, I think, is whether they “make” someone do something bad, and there is no evidence of that. If there is, the industry will address it.


Chase: How do you plan on showing how VR can rather help than harm our communities?

Billy Joe Cain: Another great question. There is a massive amount of literature that shows that VR can make a lasting impression to say the least. We have links to the studies that support these statements:

  • 50% Increase in retention rates for dry materials.
  • 62% Increase in learning enjoyment.
  • 44% More confidence about what they learn.
  • 17% More likely to seek out more information.
  • 43% Increase in retention rates for students interested in learning.

This fall, we are working with Clemson University to measure the effectiveness of our VR  program versus similar materials delivered on paper. If we find out that anything doesn’t do what we expect (i.e. if people don’t remember a specific learning objective), we’ll change the VR experience to improve performance. That’s what makes educating through an interactive product so powerful.

Now, let’s talk about how it can be misused. There have been few studies showing the long term effects of VR on developing brains, so that is something that needs more research. I believe that people may be concerned about using VR to “escape reality,” and that is certainly something that needs to be researched as well.

If you take a long term, historical view of media evolution, you find that each stage has a group that is afraid of it. Books, radio, comic books, television, computers, video games, etc. have all had their time as the “villain” before they become more mainstream. Is VR a real threat? Time will tell, but it’s possible that behaviors such as overuse may be more related to addiction than the medium itself. In other words, we advise caution because everything should be used in moderation.

For our program, we created it with a short term immersion time so there wouldn’t be concerns about a user being in the VR headset for an extended amount of time.


Chase: What’s the end goal for Radical Empathy Foundation?

Billy Joe Cain: We see a future where everyone is made aware of trafficking and it is completely eliminated. Historically, movements like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, for example, start small and grow when there is a grassroots movement to spread the word and change the culture. It is our belief that by educating a generation of people 1) that this exists, 2) that it exists everywhere, 3) that it can happen inside a family / friend group, 4) how to recognize warning signs, and 5) what to do if you believe it may be happening, we can end human trafficking in one generation.

Victims often go through well-defined stages of manipulation before they are ultimately trafficked, so understanding how to recognize these stages as well, in yourself or in others, can stop this before it even happens.

There’s a long way to go, so our program ends with a “Changemaker” project to get students involved on a local level. Students decide on their own what will help their community best.

If you’d like to learn some of the signs of potential trafficking victims and what to do (or not to do), please visit our website, specifically, https://www.radicalempathyfoundation.org/learn-the-signs/.

Thanks for speaking with us. Every chance we get to spread the word is an opportunity to help at least one person.

No, thank YOU sir for taking the time to tell me more about your organization. As a man who is heavily in a involved non-profit or two, knowing the powerful impact that can be experienced, you have my respect! Till next time!

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