„Walk in your own shoes!“

Dismantling the promise of VR non-fiction as the ultimate empathy machine and fathoming the potential of dis-immersion as critical intervention

This presentation focuses on ‘new narratives‘ dealing with the global issue of migration which however stands only as a paradigm of other forms of systemic injustice and discrimination. Taking paradigmatic projects – among others Clouds over Sidra (2015) and Limbo (2017) – I will set off to look behind the promise of interactive, immersive narratives to let users ‚walk in someone else’s shoes‘ and to make users „more empathetic“, „more connected“ and „more human“, as Chris Milk (2015) puts it.
Beyond pictorial regimes active in these documentaries, I will explore in how far the specific affordances through which the documentary experience is enabled affects the engagement with content and the potential transformative impact the producers are aiming at.

  • Are we dealing with an exploitive gaze, a form of narcissistic spectatorship, are we drawn into a „human rights spectacle“, or do new forms of narrative enable response-able witnessing?
  • Which role do immersion, presence, co-presence and liveness play in this context?
  • And do the projects promote empathy (and if so, which form of empathy – affective or cognitive?), do they contribute to a deeper understanding of complex issues, and do they foster solidarity including a drive to action?

The theoretical framework of the contribution brings together

  • recent theories of VR non-fiction (among others Rose 2018; 2019, Nash 2018, Sutherland 2015, Bailenson 2018) which draws on the tradition of documentary theory and approaches to interactive storytelling,
  • combining them with findings in neurosciences and social psychology (e.g. Bertrand et al. 2018, Schutte & Stilinović 2017, Farmer 2019), especially as to concepts of immersion, empathy and presence in VR environments
  • and sets them into relation with media-ethical considerations coming from Critical Theory and Critical Whiteness Studies

The background of the presentation is the early hype around VR non-fiction when the technology was hailed as „the ultimate empathy machine“ (Milk 2015). As such, it was only consistent that NGOs embrace the technology to raise awareness for their causes. However, more recent discourses question the power of VR to achieve social change – not only as the depiction of marginalized groups remains stuck in stereotypes, but especially as the regimes of gaze are accompanied by moral risks – mainly „improper distance“ (Nash 2018).

The main argument of this contribution will therefore be through the uncritical transportation of the ‚I’/’eye‘ of the spectator spatially and temporally into scenes of actually distant suffering, VR brings forth problematic socio-cultural/socio-political as well as media-ethical constellations: Not only does VR non-fiction, which primarily relies on affective immediacy and empathetic immersion, run the risk of dehistoricizing and depoliticizing complex issues such as migration and race issues; also, the specific regimes of gaze realized in many configurations potentially reinscribing hegemonic, colonial, paternalistic points-of-view; foremost, however, uncritical exploitation of the affordances of VR in social issue documentary invites the spectators to impose their truth over the actual experience of ‚others‘ and to colonize their feelings.

These challenges in view, I suggest a form of critical estrangement à la Brecht and active engagement as proposed in Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. I will draw our attention to the opportunity of new narratives to induce not primarily immersion but to oscillate between immersion and dis-immersion, arguing that the potential of new narratives does not consist in its amplification of immediate affective response but rather in its ability to model a different concept of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity altogether, questioning established regimes of gaze and perspective on the ’self‘ in relation to others.


Anna Wiehl has been a research fellow with i-docs at the Digital Cultures Research Centre, Bristol, UK and a lecturer and research assistant at the University of Bayreuth, Germany. Her transdisciplinary research focuses on digital media cultures, documentary practices and interactive storytelling.
Apart from her academic career, she has worked among others for the transmedia broadcasters ARTE and Bayerischer Rundfunk. From 2017 to 2019, Anna directed a research project on interactive documentary and finished her habilitation project The ‚New‘ Documentary Nexus. Networked|Networking in interactive assemblages. Currently, she is leading a BMBF research network on The Documentary and the Digital.


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