Missing in Action: Embodied Experience and Virtual Reality


This essay examines embodied experience in virtual reality (VR) theatre, performance art, and installations in one-to-one engagements with virtual worlds and in telematic interactions with other people. It proposes that bodies in VR are blurred, virtual and physical, absent and present, compounded and indivisible, even though body and environment have different materialities. This blurring can cause confusion in the ethics of embodiment that usually govern physical interactions between audience and performer—when, and if, to touch or be touched—since embodied experience confounds cognitive separation between the physical and virtual. Such confusion can result in a mismatch between the embodied self and disembodied Other that the gaming world is poorly equipped to negotiate, but that could have profound effects on VR users. Theatre, on the other hand, is well-versed in the negotiation of the real and the virtual, and virtual environments allow us to ask questions about embodiment and humanity through the experiences of individual bodies in ways that were never previously achievable. How can theatre and performance help us to understand the nature of embodied experience in VR when anything can be done but the body is apparently missing? It becomes possible to explore impossible situations and experiences through the eyes of others. Yet, is it ethically defensible to engage in any experience or action that would not be viable, or perhaps condoned, in the physical world on the basis that it is not “real”? The essay examines the nature of embodied experience in VR and considers the implications for theatre.