Reporting from virtual worlds


I am sat onboard a C17 transport airplane after being manhandled by guards into it, my head covered with a black hood, hands tied behind my back and feet restrained while I hear voices telling me to be quiet. Seconds later I am bound and it is time to wait……when the hood is removed I am given a pair of orange jumpsuits to wear as I crouch within a cage. Behind the fence two women, also wearing orange jumpsuits, are watching me. Can I call my parents, can I call my lawyer, what am I here for? imageNo answers are given to me.

These lines were not lifted from the script of a horror movie, but are part of Gone Gitmo, a virtual project from the online world of Second Life.

The journalist and filmmaker Nonny de la Peña created Gone Gitmo together with University of Southern California Interactive Media adjunct professor Peggy Weil. The duo presented the project and its implications for immersive journalism in Amsterdam at Picnic09.

Gone Gitmo is set at the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Digital recreation allows visitors, through their avatars (in the test case, a brunette and a blue-haired woman represent De la Peña and Weil) to immerse themselves into the daily real-life horrors of prison life. It’s possible to walk through the experience of military detention in this US prison camp operating, some say, outside of the law.

Virtually accurate?

Gone Gitmo creates a virtual but accurate and true version of this facility and the experience of having a close access to the detainees, military personnel, and lawyers. How can a virtual world be so lifelike? As Nonny de la Peña said, “When your avatar goes into a cage, it is a very visual feeling, beyond watching it in a film, beyond reading it in a newspaper, geography does not matter.” is possible to mix analogue and digital reality in order to recreate a sense of truth…

Weil and de la Peña aim not only to demonstrate that it is possible to mix analogue and digital reality in order to recreate a sense of truth but also to prove that a virtual representation of a system can be as informative and valid as reality itself. Gone Gitmo offers “new tools to expose war crimes and other serious violations of human rights and disseminates this information in real time throughout the world,” Weil said. What’s the potential of this tool be for journalists? Can it help when we have to cover something, in this case Guantanamo Bay prisons, but are denied access?  Weil and de la Peña are exploring this idea under the umbrella of “immersive journalism.”

Immersive journalism

The researchers explore how “storytellers” can, using their own leading characters and their own narrative, make use of 3D environments and platforms to create news documentaries that cannot be created with techniques associated with traditional news media.

We are witnessing the emergence of disciplines

in the communications field that are generating accepted forms of communicating through the Internet. We, as journalists and communicators, should be aware of them. Products like Gone Gitmo can highlight what is to come with regards to the future journalistic language in digital networks.

The area in which this evolution is most rapidly transpiring is digital infographics: visual representations of information that make the most of these digital platforms.

Strong signals: infographics

In previous years, infographics appeared to readers as fixed and static shapes positioned alongside printing information. In today’s media they have developed into pieces integrating text, images, 3D, sound and an increasing dose of interactivity. This modern communication process does not limit itself to presenting information, but invites the public to immerse themselves in what its being transmitted.

Referring to this term of “immersion” De la Peña and Weil have also created a venture titled IPSRESS, or Induction of Psycho-Somatic Distress in Virtual Reality. They’re delivering firsthand knowledge of what it is like to be a prisoner at a Guantanamo facility. The knowledge consists of a scenario built in immersive virtual reality. It relies on research, on body ownership, to give users the illusion that they are in a cell standing in a stress position while hearing an interrogation going on in the cell next door. The viewer undergoes an illusionary transformation of the physical body, thus perceptually, if not literally, entering the body of the other.

To see the world in first-person but through the perspective of others could be really valuable when it comes to solving conflict situations or discussions about which course of action to pursue in order to achieve difficult tasks.

Toward immersive journalism

The reactions toward these practices among academics and journalists are not unanimous. Some reviewers are of the opinion that these experiences will hook younger readers in a valuable way because immersive journalism not only delivers good news but also good experiences. Others disregard virtual reality tools as mere entertainment that skims the surface of news without any serious journalistic engagement.

Whatever the debate, significant news events demand innovative applications of mass communication tools like Gone Gitmo. Through digital recreation of any scenario, whether involving political or social issues, the aptly named “immersive journalism”  can not only help us have a better understanding of it but also raise an awareness and further more, could even stimulate political action.

The use of online interactive journalism in virtual platforms can only complement and extend traditional reporting of professionals in news media and enhance the audiences’ empathy with the information transmitted.

Information, in whichever form, is not meaningful when it is not accompanied by attachment or involvement.