Drax Files Special: Second Life and the power of immersive journalism

Nonny de la Peña (l) and Peggy Weil

A new Drax Files World Makers video appeared on Tuesday, September 19th, taking the form of a special retrospective of a much earlier work – and series.

In 2007, he was involved in putting together a series for Berlin-based Life For You News, an in-world TV magazine in which Drax’s pieces were something of a precursor to World Makers and perhaps one of the first attempts at immersive journalism/ reporting within a 3D world. On September 19th, 2007 as a part of the series, he released a piece examining the Virtual Guantánamo project, aka Gone Gitmo, conceived by Nonny de la Peña and  Peggy Weil.  To mark the 10th anniversary of that story, this Drax Files World Makers special looks back on it through the eyes of de la Peña and Weil, and presents the original documentary itself.

Guantánamo Bay (aka “Gitmo”), rendition, the treatment of actual (and / or alleged) terrorists, the question of human rights, America’s response to acts of terror in the wake of 9/11, including things like the loss of civil liberties through the likes of Patriot Act are difficult if not contentious subjects to examine, simply because of the complexities of the views involved. Such was the containment of events within the barbed wire fences of the prison, what happened there was, for many of us, little more than something in the news, reduced to shots of orange jumpsuits locked together with words like “terrorism”, “threat”, “attack” and so on. Even as reports of human rights violations, the use of torture, the detainment of potentially innocent people without right to  basic habeas corpus, we perhaps remained largely injured.

In 2004, concerned at what she was witnessing with regards to American values, de la Peña, an award-winning documentary film-maker Nonny  released Unconstitutional: The War On Our Civil Liberties. A 66-minutes documentary, the film examined the US Patriot Act, and included material on Gitmo and the equally infamous  Abu Ghraib prison.

In 2006, with funding from the Bay Area Video Coalition and the assistance of the Interactive Media Division of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, de la Peña set out with artist Peggy Weil to develop the Virtual Guantánamo project. With it, they sought to recreate Camp Delta at Guantánamo and expose visitors to the realities of life there – from rendition through incarceration – in which they had absolutely no free agency over their avatar, experiencing everything directly in first-person.

The experience  – finely balanced in some areas to prevent undue attention of the use of torture – was open to the public for 6 years and became the focal point for conferences and discussions on issues of human rights hosted both in the physical world and at the Gone Gitmo installation (the latter including the likes of Seaton Hall Law School and ACLU). And thus it became the subject of a segment from Depres’ Live For You News series.

Gone Gitmo became a focal point for real world and in-world discussions on human rights issues during its six-year run in Second Life

Presented here, and bookended by commentary and reflections from de la Peña and Weil, the Gone Gitmo video – which itself was nominated for an Internews “Every Human Has Rights” Media Award and featured in Vanity Fair – makes for a fascinating retrospective on several levels. Most obviously, there is the examination of the subject matter itself, particularly in the present political climate.

However, the piece also sits as a reminder that immersive journalism is not a new thing (although at times Headset Hype would have us believe otherwise). de la Peña is (in Forbes’ words) “the Godmother of VR” through her work in this type of journalism across multiple mediums (Gone Gitmo, for example was also produced using Unity, and she has used VR a numerous other projects).

It’s also a reminder of how valuable immersive 3D spaces such as Second Life (and potentially Sansar), can be in bringing people directly in contact with issues and topics of interest / concern, not just as a medium for news or education, but as a means of challenging perspectives and awakening critical thinking. In this, de la Peña’s ideas voiced in the original Gone Gitmo video for dealing with street gangs and their internecine fights with one another, are particularly salient.

Finally there is also the visual reminder of just how much Second Life has grown as a visual medium in the last ten years.

All told, a fascinating piece.

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