Criminal Minds

Freiburg’s VR expert tells Berliner Morgenpost why researching crime is tricky

April 08, 2024

Crime does not usually happen in the open. And because the perpetrators do not like being observed when on the job, they do not lend themselves to observational research. Moreover, there are simply ethical and legal obstacles for researchers to observing criminal acts. This has been a major hurdle in crime research in the past.

The work of Jean-Louis van Gelder, director at the Max Planck Insti­tute for the Study of Crime, Security and Law, was recently featured in an article that appeared in several newspapers belonging to Funke Mediengruppe (including Berliner Morgenpost, one of Germany’s most widely read daily newspapers). His solution to studying criminal behavior and criminal decisions: if the researcher cannot accompany the offender in real life, then the researcher must bring the scene of the crime to the offender.

How does that work? In short, by means of virtual reality (VR). In a project specifically on burglary, researchers in van Gelder’s team visit prisons and recruit participants from among the prison population to participate in their VR experiment – all under controlled conditions. Complex 3-D neighborhoods and house interiors that resemble today’s simulation video games are the setting for the experiment. The convicted criminals are asked to explore these residential areas and scout for possible break-in targets while wearing VR headsets.

How does virtual reality work? A vast array of technology is behind this deceptively simple research approach. Computer monitors, controllers, VR goggles and headsets, etc. are used to record head and eye movement, for example. Conven­tional interviews are also conducted with the prison inmates by the multinational team of researchers.

And how realistic is the virtual experience for the inmates? “It turns out it is not even that important for the virtual neighborhood and rooms in the houses to look convincingly real,” van Gelder reveals. As the clearance rate for burglary (around 15%) is far lower than for murder (90%), employing computer-generated technology such as this is one way to advance crime research and keep a step ahead of the criminals.

Director Jean-Louis van Gelder heads the Department of Criminology at MPI-CSL. For an overview of his department’s research program and ongoing projects, please visit

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