‘Forced empathy’: manipulation, trauma and affect in virtual reality film

Raphael Schlembach, Nicola Clewer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Exploring two recent examples of virtual reality (VR) short films designed to produce visceral experiences (on solitary confinement and on seeking asylum), we call into question claims that assign normative value and even transformative power to the VR medium – imagined as so-called ‘empathy machines’. Drawing on a growing body of literature that seeks to contest such claims, we point to and problematise both the manipulative intent of such projects and the liberal-humanitarian logic, which underpins them. Based on such a logic, advocacy through immersive technologies supposes that if only individuals can be made to ‘feel’ something they will be changed by it and so will their behaviour. Whatever progressive motivations of the content producers, the emphasis on empathetic identification threatens to by-pass critical engagement and raises wider questions about the potentially de-politicising effects of seeking technological solutions to effect social change.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)827-843
Number of pages17
JournalInternational Journal of Cultural Studies
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 7 Apr 2021

Bibliographical note

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/) which permits non-commercial use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (https://us.sagepub.com/en-us/nam/open-access-at-sage).

Funding Information:
We would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and detailed comments on earlier versions of this article. The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021.


  • immersive technology
  • prosthetic memory
  • vicarious trauma
  • virtual reality
  • visceral experience


Dive into the research topics of '‘Forced empathy’: manipulation, trauma and affect in virtual reality film'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this