Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: Media, Migration and the Humanitarian Predicament


Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: Media, Migration and the Humanitarian Predicament

Virtual Reality is a booming industry and is considered to be a game changer. So far it has mostly been used for entertainment and to give a sense of extraordinary experiences. However, it has also been used effectively in the military field to enhance training and simulate risk situations, in the health sector to practice surgical interventions as well as to treat mental disorders and addictions and to aid rehabilitation, in the realms of education, museums, sport, HR, architecture and for climate awareness. In the last decade, Virtual Reality has also been increasingly used to think about minority and diversity politics, by making the viewer experience what it is like to face racial prejudice or survive a perilous migration journey. For these reasons, VR is widely acclaimed in the humanitarian sector.

Virtual Reality is a technology which creates a multisensory, immersive, realistic 3D environment, which can be interactive and has the power to make us experience different worlds. This can affect our cognitive and emotional responses and possibly change our attitudes or behaviour regarding issues or realities that are usually remote or removed from our daily existence. For this reason, it has been postulated as the ultimate ‘empathy machine’, a technology of feeling that promotes compassion, connection and intimacy by allowing the viewer to experience the lives of those who are distant others, for example migrants or refugees. It has been increasingly used to this effect in humanitarian appeals to solicit donations and renew public engagement.

The aim of “Virtual Reality as Empathy Machine: Media, Migration and the Humanitarian Predicament” is to make an innovative and urgent intervention into the field of VR for humanitarian communication by evaluating the potentialities and pitfalls of immersion and empathy through technological innovation.

This project will critically investigate the role of VR for humanitarian appeals by asking how and to what extent humanitarian VR can function as an empathy machine, bridging the distance between viewers and mediated others. It will do so by researching the impact of VR for humanitarian appeals, in particular concerning issues around migration and refugees. 

For this purpose, the project will combine media analysis and empirical research through a postcolonial approach, with one of the dissemination results also being the creation of an alternative VR projects and collaborative practices. The project draws from different disciplinary fields such as (digital) media studies, postcolonial theory, science and technology studies, psychology, gender studies, anthropology, development studies, conflict studies, game and film studies and humanitarian communication.