Changing VR at VR for Change

The topics are big ones: How can VR storytelling engender change? What is the nexus of games and journalism? Where do new media require new ethics?

At the VR for Change Summit in New York City this month, the cafeteria at Parsons School of Design transformed into a salon with tables populated by students, technologists, journalists, game developers and entrepreneurs. They came to Greenwich Village from around the world to discuss these questions at an event funded by the Knight Foundation and organized by VR for Change Curator Erik Martin, as part of the 2017 Games for Change Festival.

The first table — facilitated by Amy and Ryan Green, whose work in virtual reality has helped children with cancer and their families cope with the illness — wrestled with the best way to use emerging media to impact how people think about issues and ideas. In large part, this group agreed that VR’s flexibility can lower the emotional barrier of entry to news stories that are traditionally difficult for people to focus on because of their subject matter.

VR for Change participants gather in the Parsons cafeteria

One participant in that discussion had never been able to watch stories about animal poaching on television or in film because the images were so disturbing. However, during a VR experience about poaching, the viewer could look away at certain points while staying engaged in the overall story. Further, the group noted, VR allows players to explore the environments and discover the news in a potentially unsettling story at their own pace and with a comforting sense of control.

“We heard people say that they stopped watching the news because they hated seeing all the bad news,” Amy Green said. “In VR, an experience can be specifically designed to allow a player to look away from intense or hard moments without removing themselves from the story being told.”

That said, the participants at this table also talked about some of the design limitations of the new technologies. In particular, they identified the challenge of trying to design experiences that can be enjoyed easily by people new to virtual reality as well as by more seasoned players. In order to get through this, the group recommended faster and more concentrated efforts to establish industry-wide standards of play.

Summit Curator Erik Martin opens the event in New York City

While all agreed about the innate power of VR to capture someone’s emotional attention, one challenge still remaining for many content creators looking to have an impact is identifying the right point — and right ways — to deliver a call to action, the group acknowledged.

At table two, Heather Chaplin, founding director of the Journalism + Design program at The New School, along with The New York Times’ Samantha Quick, led the group in conversation around the ethical questions that the new media have raised — from defining journalistically acceptable ways to present an experience to addressing some of the social concerns related to more shared VR experiences. Chaplin said that she was “struck by how little exists in terms of ethical or research guidelines” applied to the emerging practices.

The group was particularly interested in some of the basic questions that journalists struggle to apply to existing media, including how to present interviews with people describing traumatic experiences. One twist on traditional ethical questions includes looking at how to relate to people who may feel like an outsider when immersed in an interactive community. Another is whether allowing people to be flies on the wall could, at least in the early days of VR when there is an economic gap between those who can and cannot afford the technology, create a voyeuristic mindset in which more privileged viewers are watching less privileged subjects.

“We spent a lot of time discussing whether the issues around VR were actually new, or just the same kind of issues that always arise with a new medium,” said Chaplin. She noted that in the early days of film, when audiences saw a train coming at them on screen during The Great Train Robbery, “people ran away, never having seen a moving image before.”

Lindsay Grace, director of the Game Lab and Studio at American University, led the third table in conversation around the lessons that spherical experience creators can learn from game development.

Certain fundamentals were raised, including the importance of fast load times, establishing quick and intuitive mechanics and mastering the best ways to present overlays to provide context around stories. On a more sophisticated level, the group recognized the potential for using visuals as a common language to reach people at different levels of overall literacy. Its members also discussed the value of journalists becoming more familiar with techniques that game developers have learned about steering audiences.

Dynamic dialogue at the VR for Change Summit, August 2, 2017

This group recognized the nascent stage of journalists working with interactive and immersive storytelling. “A primary challenge is the need to train VR journalists. This is more than helping them understand the technology, and is also about incorporating the characteristics of the medium,” Grace said. “There are few people teaching how to handle a medium where control is ceded to the consumer.”

Grace noted that this is an area in which game designers have greater experience and can work with journalists to better grasp how the relationships between authors, viewers, readers and players change in VR.

In general, he said, the limits of 360 video being produced by news organizations today are “analogous to posting a PDF online and calling it a website.”

While the teams may not have come up with conclusive answers to the questions debated during these sessions at VR for Change, the spirit of the discussions was progressive and collaborative. Many of the facilitators, as well as the participants, walked away with fresh perspectives on the opportunities to work together to bring the points of view, perspectives and skill sets necessary to meet the challenges ahead.