The Ethics of Empathy in Virtual Reality

The Ethics of Empathy in Virtual Reality

I had the pleasure of participating in an Empathy and Ethics Seminar hosted by Professor Brian Winston of The University of Lincoln School of Film and Media. Our focus was on documentary and non-fiction media in the age of the digital, and more specifically, VR and augmented reality technologies. So many, and in particular Chris Milk, have hailed VR as the ultimate ‘empathy machine’ capable of deepening empathy and recognition of another person’s humanity. But what really are we to make of this technology, the capacity for producing or enhancing empathy, and the ethics that attend it? Once we can put aside the all-too-familiar bid to techno-utopianism, what are the possibilities and limits? What are the questions we should be asking?


Participants included David Cooke, ex Director British Board of Film Censors; Nathasha Fernando, CAMRI, Westminster University, London; Prof Roderick Orner, Visiting Professor, University of Lincoln; Dr Ola Ogunyemi, School of Journalism, University of Lincoln; Dr Orna Raviv, Unit for History and Philosophy of Art, Design and Technology, Shenkar College; Professor Mandy Rose, Director Digital Cultures Research Centre , University of the West of England;  Dr Pratap Rughani, College of Communication, University of the Arts, London Dr Willemien Sanders, Department of Media and Culture, University of Utrecht; and Dr Mario Slugan, Postdoctoral Associate Fellow at University of Warwick.

Posted here is a combination of my preliminary provocation and the comments I offered at the close of the conference, which took into account conversation and presentations over the two days as well as my initial questions, which revolve around the ethics of empathy and its uses as a political emotion.


My comments and provocation take two parts. On the one hand, I have my questions regarding empathy, and on the other, the questions regarding these new technologies and what possibilities or new concerns they deliver. As someone who has been preoccupied with the uses of screen media in bearing witness to human rights abuses to cultivate a popular understanding of human rights and to mobilise audiences, my interests in these issues tend to the pro-social aspects and expectations around these technologies.


Witnessing and Empathy: History and the Problems of Empathy


Expectations around witnessing and response—that conviction that seeing leads to knowing and to doing— are persistent and resurface with each development in communications technology. Before we even attend to the questions of VR, AR, and iDocs, we need to historicise and contend with this legacy of expectation around the act of bearing witness. We need to think about how it can be fleshed out in terms of aesthetic tactics: what are the tropes, narratives, genres deployed and how to they interact with existing interpretive and rhetorical grids? And we need to think about contexts: What are the conditions of preproduction, production, distribution, and exhibition that channel interest and response into action. Many places to come in, especially when one considers the dimensions of participation.


If the goal or result is empathy, we need to investigate further. Empathy is not quite emotion, not quite cognitive process, nor even quite physical, and yet it is a combination of all, as it signals understanding (or at least) willingness to understand the feelings and conditions of another. It suggests identification and shared perspectives. It can even refer to the physical, visceral responses invoked by witnessing the experiences of another. And as we define this term, we’ll also need to clarify the terms that get bundled in: sympathy, compassion and pity in particular, as each hails a different type of emotional or affective response, each with attendant power dynamics—particularly around the politics of pity.


Beyond questions of definition, come those of use and the ethics of this experience or emotion: Leaving aside my aforementioned definitions, empathy is often best described as placing oneself in another’s shoes:



  • What are the problems with the tropes used to cultivate this ‘relatability’, particularly when it works alongside the predispositions of the viewer? We have been speaking about Levinas throughout the seminar: Is it really about seeing ourselves in someone else, or recognising the radical alterity of the other and experiencing responsibility regardless? Surely to expect the person in need of aid to be like us, or to behave in accordance with our desires, is to miss an ethical trick or moral obligation.


  • What problems inhere to the experience of empathy itself? Can questions of spectator complicity (as well as the complicity of the platform in terms of tech, aesthetics, and framing) be elided when identification with the suffering other alone is sought? And what happens when this discourse seems to suggest that empathy is an end to itself: it alone is the goal in shaping this testimonial encounter between the witness and the spectator? How essential is empathy to taking responsibility and action for what has been seen and heard?


  • And a final question regarding empathy: Why is empathy so central now? Why is empathy the emotion/experience held up in the discourse? Why not outrage, or solidarity, or even radicalisation? I think now of the longstanding presence of ‘mobilising shame’ in human rights discourse, which may have focussed on the perpetrator, but nonetheless seems to have vanished in favour of empathy. What uses does empathy serve that we may not fully be appreciating in the focus on the prosocial uses of VR?


What new does the tech bring?


This is a big question and again, one that requires historicising. Interactive media are nothing new, and each has brought benefits and challenges to making and to community engagement. So what specific questions should we begin to ask to understand this moment and these new technological developments?


Constantly on my mind has been about who is using this and how that can be used to direct action. Who has access to this tech? What kinds of impediments are there to using it and using it for collective action? To date, the learning curve for each individual experience can feel quite steep, and to say individual is to remember that with VR, this is an essentially isolated experience at the moment: Where can the collective engagement come in? Is this merely to be enhanced clicktivism, which has its function, or can there be more?


Another question I have is what exactly the position is of the spectator/ user (and now I know I must be reading Kate Nash’s work on witnessing and VR). There seem to be two potential positions identified in VR:  one is the simulated experience of or presence in another and the other is that of enhanced witnessing, where the position embodied is specifically one of spectatorship not being. For instance, I think here of Netflix as app on my Oculus Go. When I use it, it is not for 360 video or VR because these files aren’t yet available. Rather, it plunges me into a lodge where I am sat on a sofa in front of a television. I can look out the window to a lovely mountain view or look down to see a coffee table. This is immersion in spectatorship


And I wonder if here is a place that could inform the potential around the encounter with the other. While VR promises to close the gap between spectatorship and experience, between distant suffering and presence, or between us and them, what about those attempts to close the gap that enhance the sense of distance. I think here about Hunger in LA, where one stands on a food line and through verité, uncut audio and CGI recreation witnesses a person experience a diabetic seizure. The reports describe wanting and evening gesturing to help, but realising one is unable to. Can there possibly be a benefit not in pretending to be the other or with the other, but in this persistent sort of uncanny valley. How might this experience call attention to the imaginative acts that media technology, experience, and interpretation? Where might frustration play a role? (And with this I also know I must turn to Homay King and her disruption of the masterful gaze; could it be that this continued frustration somehow confronts that gaze that presumes command over all it surveys?)


This isn’t to say there won’t be those projects that seek to elide seeing, being, doing— using all the problematic arrows in their quiver, but could there be potential in this experience that seems to linger in these projects?


There are more questions, surely, and I hope that if they do come to mind as you read this, you leave them in the comments.


— Leshu Torchin

5 thoughts on “The Ethics of Empathy in Virtual Reality”

    • Thank you! It’s just a start to collecting ideas (and merging my existing issues with empathy with the questions of new technologies for nonfiction) but I hope it can offer something for the discussion.

  1. I served on the jury of the third edition of China’s leading VR festival, Sanbox Immersive Festival ( in Qingdao, Shandong, earlier this year. And whiist I am not familiar with the discourse om VR and empathy, I must say that among the projects we saw/experienced in view to award, there were three that stood out with their empathy potential: the French B&W and very stylish ACCUSED NR 2: WALTER SISULU (which revealed some overlooked and very serious aspects of racism in South Africa from the time of the apartheid and later on, by exploring the trial of Walter Sisulu alongside Nelson Mandela’s), HOME AFTER WAR:RETURNING TO FEAR IN FALUJA, directed by German-based Gayatri Paramwswaran (which, with its full physical immersion set up, gave some quite visceral experiences of the minefield that this city is after the battle) and COMMON GROUND, the British project exposing the games of gentrification and working class disenfranchisement at London’s Aylestone estate, directed by Darren Emerson. In each one of these cases there was potential for empathy — but given the fact that these projects are viewed individually on a set, I am sceptical about the chances of any real engagement, as there is no opportunity to discuss or reach out to others, just by virtue of the way the viewing experience is set. There were also two worthwhile projects on war trauma, both based on recreating WWI — the French 11.11.18 and the BBC’s production NOTHING TO BE WRITTEN. My overall impression, however, was that those who are experts in the VR industry and who curate and influence the circuit, are not particularly in support of such projects. One of them shared the view that all those VR projects that do not evolve into a gaming are regarded as noble but futile undertakings.

    • Thank you, Dina. Your point is an important one: Even if empathy is the desired form of engagement, what possibilities are there when the experience becomes so individual, and the imemrsion or presence in this other time and place ends once the goggles are removed? What maintains the connection?

      Additionally there is the question of where people are encountering these projects. At this point, it seems that festivals have become the crucial sites for exhibition and use, although ironically, these audiences are often not the ‘intended’ audiences, as far as one can tell. At the event, Mandy Rose noted how Pat Aufderheide raised a question about negative or traumatic effects on an ‘audience’ and the need when moving forward to take that into account What was interesting is that while Aufderheide was absolutely right, this somehow obviated the festival audience as intended audience.

      And questions of audience go well beyond that: Who is supposed to be using VR? There are definitely uses in terms of training and education and, as you note, gaming. But where else can this go and how? The UN, the BBC, and NYTimes are definitely investing, but possibly more with hopes for invigorating political sentiment and journalism than actual plans.

      Thanks again for sharing. I’m particularly excited to collect the titles of projects so I may try to watch them (should they become more widely available).

  2. Thanks, Leshu. There’s lots there that very much chimes with my thinking. I’m very interested in your idea about Hunger in LA and how it might be possible to deploy VR in a way that both encourages empathy – the wish to literally reach out and help – ,and draws attention to the impossibility of that gesture. I think there is more work emerging now that is more reflective and gets beyond an uncritical goal of evoking empathy in the viewer. For example, I’ve not seen it, but Kate Nash has written recently about a work called Testimony about sexual abuse that will I’m sure interest you, in which the speaker stops speaking if the “viewer” tuns away. I’m interested in how in such a way the project design / interface can play a part in disrupting the relationship between viewer and subject. .Testimony is on the Oculus store. US scholar practitioner Aggie Ebrahimi Aziz has made a wonderful work – How to tell a true Immigrant Story – in collaboration with migrant workers in Syracuse, in which she uses the space of 360 degree video to play with the viewer’s positioning and identification, in a way that keeps her on her toes, unable to drop into a position of feeling (sorry) for the migrants – a position which can after all be a comfortable one for the viewer. Thinking here of Jill Godmillow’s critique of the “liberal documentary”, which I discuss in The Immersive Turn – hype and hope in emerging VR nonfiction


Leave a comment