This article rethinks the notion of virtual reality (VR) as an ‘empathy machine’ by examining how VR directs emotional identification not toward the subjects of particular VR titles, but toward VR developers themselves. Tracing how both positive and negative empathy circulates around characters in one of the most influential VR fictions of the 2010s, the light novel series-turned-anime series Sword Art Online (2009–), as well as the real-life figure of Palmer Luckey, creator of the Oculus Rift headset that launched the most recent VR revival, the author shows how empathetic identification ultimately tends to target the VR game master, the head architect of the VR world. These figures often already inhabit a socially privileged position. A better understanding of how VR channels empathy towards VR creators points to the need to ensure a broader range of people have opportunities to take up the role of VR game master for themselves.
Journal of Visual Culture, Volume 19, Issue 1