Milk characterizes his preoccupation working with film as one based on empathy, stating that “...film is this incredible medium that allows us to feel empathy for people that are very different than us and worlds completely foreign from our own.”
[VR documentary] promises to instill the player with empathy for Sidra “in a deeper way,” whatever that means. Less is said about what this empathy actually translates to for Sidra, or for any other human being living in this refugee camp.
He refers to business leaders, politicians, and other elites who may not otherwise find themselves “sitting in a tent in a refugee camp in Jordan” (but who perhaps should), that he flatly insists were “affected” by the film.
To underscore the importance of his VR documentaries, Milk ends his talk by arguing that the “true power” of VR has yet to be discovered, that VR is “not a game peripheral,” but rather a perception-changing miracle machine that could, echoing the words of Jane McGonigal, “change the world.”
[Yang] described his mistrust of “empathy” as a selling point, arguing that it has often been used to exploit the suffering of others while demanding nothing of the player other than that they “empathize”—a thing that’s difficult to prove, and of little use to oppressed communities. Yang proposed that perhaps “empathy machines” would more accurately be described as “appropriation machines”:
I'm very familiar with people annexing other peoples’ experiences under the banner of empathy. Specifically, I’ve been making realistic 3D games about gay relationships for a while, and the vast majority of my players and fans happen to be straight people. This leads to a widely held but incorrect assumption that I make my games for ‘straight people to understand what being gay is like’—and some of the worst homophobes on YouTube even call my games ‘gay simulators’ so they can react with disgust toward it.
This ‘straight empathy’ suddenly makes my games more about ‘how beautiful and benevolent the straight people are, to tolerate my gay existence instead of vomiting’—instead of highlighting gay culture or queer solidarity, as I intended. I want to imagine fantastic worlds where straight people aren't as important—and yet, they demand that I dance for them in VR, whenever they want, forever. For this reason, I hate it when people think my games are like empathy machines. I don't want your empathy, I want justice!
Empathy rhetoric rarely if ever distinguishes between the intellectual or emotional variety, and it lies when it attempts to then guarantee compassion, solidarity, or any other “emotionally mature” response in those doing the empathizing. Rather than being an adequate stand-in for real emotional, artistic, or political engagement, “empathy” in and of itself is one of the most evasive and empty goals a work of art can have.
Empathy, Yang explains, has often been used historically by the dominant classes in a society to reconfigure the oppression of the underclasses into something more sympathetic and palatable to their sensibilities. By making oppressed groups more entertaining and “relatable,” the powerful can feel like they’re doing penance while simultaneously releasing themselves from any responsibility toward those groups.
"I came to understand that whatever the new technologies of representation are at any one moment, those that wield it, believe they are building a new kind of heavenly Utopia. I think the ephemeral nature of VR, the feeling of being real and unreal at the same time, lends itself to this heavenly guise. And artistically, when you bring an audience into a space that holds onto this edge (i.e. dreamlike/ghost-like), users tend to feel that they are having a kind of transformative, heavenly experience. But isn't this what art generally should have as its mission! For me, the glitzy, sensationalist, sexy-product idea of VR is all wrong. Not quite "arty" enough for my gusto. It should be more of a spiritual journey. And I am sure that the more personal and economical means that artists embrace out of economic necessity are also to our advantage. I am quite happy to leave the blockbusters to entertainment, pedagogy, and science." Claudia Hart
Whose stories dominate memory? Who is “allowed” to participate in the process of placemaking? How do we construct alternative modes of engaging with a public space?