Black pain isn't a video game: The possibilities and pitfalls of virtual reality in the Black Lives Matter era

Virtual reality can help white people understand the trauma of racist violence—but the risk of exploitation is high

Published August 14, 2016 8:30PM (EDT)

The Argus Project   (The Argus Project/Tribeca Film Institute)
The Argus Project (The Argus Project/Tribeca Film Institute)

Everyone has the license to tell a story from their own perspective and lexicon. Virtual reality technology is gaining popularity for elite storytellers, and people have the power to employ this new technology to invent their truth however they see it, changing the way we think about sharing our experiences, thoughts and ideas. When using virtual reality technology to tell stories that impact the African American community, however, the danger for exploitation is high.

“Every medium has its own strengths and weaknesses, and a master storyteller in any medium can build empathy. In VR, however, your senses are engaged in a way that blurs the line between fantasy and reality,” said Guy Primus, CEO and co-founder of The Virtual Reality Company, via email. “When you have the ability to look into someone's eyes and have them look back into yours, things get more real. You can't look away. Everything is happening in real-time, and that creates a different level of emotion. Those emotions can be positive or negative, but they are very real.”

Over the last couple of years, we've seen citizen journalism take on a new prominence with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. But while White America may be able to center conversations of black trauma and pain around themselves and choose when to engage with the realities of Black American life and history through, for example, social media and viral videos, Black America doesn’t have the luxury of disembodying itself from the past. When virtual reality technology is introduced, the ethical questions multiply. New technology may work to agitate empathy in white people, but at the same time, it can pick at Black America’s wounds, wounds that haven’t yet healed. How can this technology be used responsibly to tell stories that center the narrative around disenfranchised groups of people?

Veteran journalist Nonny de la Peña and her company Emblematic created “One Dark Night,” a virtual reality app that recreates the February 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, which they demonstrated at 2015’s Tribeca Film Institute Interactive. The interface of the project was similar to that of an adult-rated video game — think “World of Warcraft” — except the content presented was far from a fantasy. Instead, users experienced Trayvon Martin navigating the neighborhood in which he was shot, the sounds of George Zimmerman’s gunshots, and residents frantically making 911 calls.

Peña explains to Salon why VR was her choice for creating this project.

“One of the reasons is it was compelling audio. And even with a GoPro rig, you couldn’t really go out and recreate the events, the way that they kind of transpired,” she says.

Peña researched “One Dark Night” thoroughly, reviewing police reports, jury testimony and Zimmerman’s interview with the police the next day.

“We did everything that would have been done in traditional journalistic practice. I used the same procedures that I would use to make any piece before I begin to make this piece,” she says. “And as you can see from the piece, we never put you anywhere near where Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman had their fatal confrontation.”

She declined to respond to a follow-up question asking whether her team had spoken to Travyon Martin’s parents prior to releasing “One Dark Night.”

In our conversation, I asked if her virtual reality experience included additional interpretive materials that could situate Martin’s story in a greater historical or cultural context. Peña said they did not provide those.

“We acted very quickly when we went about creating this piece. We created it in just under a week. I think that’s one thing that the web has immediate access to that VR doesn’t — the ability to research and click on links and find out where the material comes from. And I think that something like that might be more useful when we have more time to integrate them into our news stories and, of course, translate them into VR stories,” Peña said.

The “One Dark Night” project was introduced during a time when non-indictments, Black Lives Matter and police armed with riot gear were becoming branded into the collective memory of a generation of African-Americans. While the intent of the “One Dark Night” project may have been to spark awareness among white users and agitate empathy in them, it did so potentially at the expense of African-American users, by invoking a present pain that can cause heightened emotional distress.

Peña notes that, before releasing the project, she consulted with several of her friends who are part of the Black Lives Matter movement and that the Tribeca committee approved of it. But after I experienced “One Dark Night” myself, I stayed to watch other users. Most of the Black people I spoke to after had the same reaction: “Why would someone create this!?” White users, on the other hand, seemed to be able to get up, move on and go about enjoying the rest of festival. While this project may have been created to raise awareness around police brutality, it does so by putting the mental and emotional health of African-American users at risk.

A recent study conducted by the British Psychological Society suggest that viewing violent news on social media can cause trauma. The study was conducted with 189 participants, with an average age of 37. Each participant completed a clinical assessment for PTSD, a personality questionnaire, a vicarious trauma assessment and a questionnaire concerning different violent news events on social media or the internet. These included the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, school shootings and suicide bombings.

The analysis indicated that 22 per cent of participants were significantly affected by the media events. “These individuals scored high on clinical measures of PTSD even though none had previous trauma, were not present at the traumatic events and had only watched them via social media. Those who reported viewing the events more often were most affected,” the study reported.

Peña suggests that future projects should acknowledge the risk of VR-induced trauma. “We need some sort of warning sign, like a mature audience sign,” she says.

If the goal of “One Dark Night” was to create an immersive virtual reality experience, then it's important, moving forward, that such experiences are coupled with real learning from those who are mourning. That’s what the Argus Project did the following year. Created by Ligaiya Romero, Julien A. Terrell, Raquel de Anda and Gan Golan, Argus, a “trans-media project that directly intersects the public debate over police accountability,” was showcased during 2016’s TFI Interactive. The experience consists of counter-surveillance armor embedded with body cameras that asks a simple question: “If the police wear body armor to protect themselves while in public, what must ‘The Public’ wear to protect themselves from the police?"

Video projections surrounding the suit include former officers, activists and family members directly impacted by police violence, creating a space for a real conversation on police violence. The project was set up in a space that allowed the users the opportunity to talk about the experience and how they felt about it.

Perhaps virtual reality storytelling can help to close an empathy gap through immersive technology. Guy Primus affirms this potential.

“The situations that the Black community faces, and the emotions that those situations evoke, are clearly not relatable to everyone, currently,” says Primus. “When you transition from being a casual observer in a situation to being an active participant in that situation, your perspective changes. I wouldn't wish the trauma faced by many of the members of the Black community experience on others, but I do think that the ability to relate to those traumatic experiences, even in a small way, will help to bring people together.”

But simply experiencing these videos — and relying on them to inform consciousness — can create the deceptive feeling in users that they’ve gone to the frontlines of Ferguson, Baltimore or Dallas, without actually ever being there.

If these virtual reality experiences are going to assist in bringing people together around issues of injustice, it’s important that they are coupled with discussion. We’re already a highly-desensitized generation. Black bodies sprawled across the internet have become almost commonplace. As people watch a video game-style display of a news story, it’s vital that they don’t walk away with an “othered” understanding of the experience. These are real stories, people and places.

In the past we’ve seen the chain reaction of events when a video of a police shooting is posted on the internet: Watch, protest, wait, the rush to judgment, non-indictment. Unfortunately, we’ve yet to come up with any real recourse or plans of effecting change. No real conversations beyond race relations 101 are taking place. Instead, there’s a disheartening numbing of the American consciousness when it comes to the senseless killings of Black and Brown people.

Even though these visuals may be able to compel a white person to take action on issues of social injustice, by giving them the vantage point of Black America’s pain, it’s absolutely necessary that African-Americans are the ones telling these stories and informing those who are in the business of creating them. Virtual reality can be used as a learning tool, but can’t be used as a cop-out or replacement for tough history lessons. We can’t afford to, once again, have African-American history remixed and modified to cater to the comforts of white people.

“There’s always the potential for history to be rewritten in ways that co-opt or modify the truth or that modify it to the point that whatever happen is no longer apart of the story, so it’s experienced and understood very differently,” says Dr. Bryan Carter, creator of Virtual Harlem and an associate professor of African-American Studies at the University of Arizona, in a phone interview with Salon. “People assume that whatever it is can be experienced through whatever the created virtual reality is truth, when, in all actuality, it may not be.”

Carter is making sure that more African-Americans are exposed to this technology as a means of storytelling. He teaches a course called Digital Africana where he exposes his students to the creation of augmented and virtual reality. During the course of the semester, he noted that he takes his students to Paris, where they work on creating an immersive experience based off of their visit.

“Now, to get more African-Americans or people of African descent involved in this — it’s number one, a matter of exposure, knowing that this is, in fact, even possible. And how to go about even creating these sorts of experiences. And then number two, it's a matter of encouraging individuals to figure out interesting and new ways to tell stories or to relay information or to pass on various experiences through that particular technology,” says Carter.

While virtual reality may be used to bring to light the ugly realities of Black American history and life, we can’t fully grapple with it until we do the work of pulling back the pages of history that aren’t surrounded by Eurocentric parameters.  As we consider the best practices and use for virtual reality as a technology for non-fiction storytelling, it's important that it’s coupled it with some textbook teaching — and uncomfortable conversation, too.

“I think that the ‘columbusing’ of stories of black trauma and pain is perhaps more dangerous than columbusing in any other art form,” says Lauren Frazier, a software developer for Google, in an email exchange. “While movies and books can portray our struggle through a distorted lens, VR can cause people to experience black trauma and pain through a distorted lens. This means that there would potentially be large numbers of people who now ‘know what it feels like’ to be black, yet their experiences were not authentic.”

“I believe that however sincere the creators of the VR experience are, if they have not experienced the trauma and pain themselves, they won't be able to capture it 100 percent accurately, turning the black experience into something more akin to a theme park ride,” she adds.

In an industry workforce made up of only 2 percent African-Americans, ensuring that African-American history is told with a level of accuracy, coupled with sensitivity, is going to demand proper research.

“I see three key ways that I can help ensure that our stories are being told properly. The first is to expose VR and AR to those who are already telling the stories of African-Americans in a meaningful and authentic way,” says Primus. “I can also help by ensuring that we at VRC are developing and producing our own VR and AR experiences that feature authentic African-American perspectives. Finally, I can ensure that any experience that comes through our studio depicts the myriad of African-American experiences and perspectives accurately.”

There are multiple sides and perspectives to every story that have every right to be told. However, the shared experience of the oppressed needs to be at the center as they are revealed. We can’t be so overstimulated — to the point of being sucked into an experience, buying it as reality — without doing our research, having cross-cultural conversations and peeling back the pages of history by doing the work of learning just as much as teaching.

“While I believe that some people are truly hateful towards black people, many people are simply apathetic or unaware of the pain and trauma inflicted on black people daily. I think those people would definitely benefit from experiencing the trauma firsthand and would likely move forward with a different perspective after a VR experience,” Frazier said.

If this is the future of storytelling, then it’s imperative that African-Americans are weighing in on the conversation. The emotional cost is far too high for the African-American community; white America is at risk of sinking into empathy without action.

It’s important to question whether technology can really help heighten that consciousness through virtual reality, or whether it will turn white people from passive spectators into participatory video game players. By adopting a reality that is not their own, simulating technology may be used as a learning tool, but it’s vital that stories of Black trauma and pain don’t become narratives that are co-opted and distorted. This isn’t fiction, it’s real life.

By Priscilla Ward

Priscilla Ward is an over-caffeinated, D.C.-based writer, running enthusiast, music explorer, and founder of BLCKNLIT. You can find her tweeting @Macaronifro.

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Black Lives Matter Editor's Picks Police Brutality Racism Trayvon Martin Virtual Reality