Virtual reality and being in a body

Affect is a slippery term. It can be used to mean something pre-social, something felt, an inbetween-ness, emotive qualities and bodily sensations. In this post I will focus on bodily sensations and virtual reality (VR) technologies. VR is poised to overhaul health care, entertainment, pornography, education and more. These technologies introduce novel ways of thinking about embodiment and experiences of space. I’m going to briefly outline three ways in which VR will impact on experiences of one’s own body.


Images depicting lone individuals wearing headsets with their necks craned and wide grins are commonplace when advertising these new technologies. I like to imagine the scene after, when the heavy headset is removed and the new types of repetitive strain injuries that will emerge from adopting these postures.


Trying on a Sony headset with a shooting computer game I looked down to see default white male arms. This, was jolting given the high definition detail of the rest of the graphics but not an insurmountable issue. Through film and literature I have become used to what Rebecca Solnit calls the “transgendering and cross-racializing of [my] identities. The real problem occurred after game play when I was nauseas and dizzy. After only ten minutes in this simulated environment I felt sick. Research shows that women are more likely to suffer from virtual simulation sickness than men; both content and form were not designed with my body in mind.


What if being in a body is sometimes a problem? Researchers at the University of Washington are working with burns victims to reduce pain using VR . Physiotherapy is required to keep sore new skin supple when it heals however it is extremely painful for patients. Patients may be prescribed morphine but this presents undesirable side-effects. Pain requires conscious attention in order to be felt; it has a strong psychological component and VR provides a distraction; it is in effect an alternative medicine.

To help treat burns victims, researchers created Snow World, a VR game in which the player throws snowballs at targets including penguins and snowmen. It is about as far away from burns as you can imagine. Patients play this game while undertaking painful procedures including physiotherapy and wound care. By exploiting the ‘primacy of the affective in image reception’  people are able to disassociate from their immediate circumstances. One patient taking part in the Snow World programme acknowledged this explicitly “the more you focus on the game part of the virtual reality … you kind of step outside of your body“.

Virtual reality technologies have not yet been the commercial success manufacturers had hoped for. However widespread adoption feels inevitable and the implications for our sense of our of own bodies and they physical spaces we inhabit will be wide-ranging from mundane strains to profound, if temporary, altered experiences of self.



[1] Gregg, M., & Seigworth, G. J. (2010). The affect theory reader. Duke University Press.

[2] Men explain Lolita to me [Accessed 13.02.17]

[3] Clemes, S. A., & Howarth, P. A. (2005). The menstrual cycle and susceptibility to virtual simulation sickness. Journal of biological rhythms, 20(1), 71-82.

[4] Easing pain for burns victims using virtual reality [Accessed 13.02.17]

[5] Massumi, B. (1995). The autonomy of affect. Cultural Critique, (31), 83-109.

[6] Treating Pain With A Virtual World Of Snow And Ice [Accessed 13.02.17]

[7] Behind the Numbers of Virtual Reality’s Sluggish Debut, MIT Technology Review [Accessed 13.02.17]


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