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

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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
JournalInternational Journal of Cultural Studies
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).


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


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