I’m going to be honest with you, I haven’t been paying that much attention to what’s been going on in Syria. I know it’s bad and I’ve tried to bring myself up to date from time to time on the latest part of the ongoing conflict. But truthfully, I have no day to day awareness of the conflict, it’s potential solutions, and it’s ongoing human toll in anything more than an abstract way.
I suspect I’m not alone in this.
That’s why programs like Project Syria intrigue me. It’s a four and a half minute sequence you view through virtual reality goggles and headphones. It takes you onto the streets of Aleppo during a mortar attack. The scene is accurately mapped, down to real recorded audio, and the patterns of people through the crowded streets. Producer Nonny de la Pena terms this Immersive Journalism. Instead of crafting an article or shooting a documentary, de la Pena has created an experience. While not everyone has a pair of virtual goggles and headphones, de la Pena sees immersive journalism taking the form of apps you can send to smart phones to allow you to witness scenes shortly after they happen.
Consuming the news is a passive experience, while gaming is an active experience, and programs like Project Syria are not the first attempt at Newsgames: games that simulate current events through a variety of means.
One of the notable early examples of this genre is Darfur is Dying. Centered around the refugee crisis in Darfur you play as a member of a village going out to get water. You must travel a very long distance and dodge patrols all while having very little cover and being on foot while you are being chased from vehicles. Once you get back to the village (which is not easy to do), you must distribute the water to grow crops, help the thirsty and construct homes while still under the threat of attack.
A more recent example uses an old form of computer gaming, Interactive Fiction (though the game itself seems closer to Choose Your Own Adventure). 1000 days in Syria lets you choose to see through the eyes of the family, the fighter or the foreigner through a 1000 day narrative, beginning in 2011. While the gameplay elements are simple and involve a lot of reading, your choices matter and steer the destinies of these people, in so much as you can given what is going on around you.
Both of these games have links to places you can make a real difference. They try to tell a true story through a fictionalized account. And while these might be journalism of a kind, they are also activism. The activism is less about taking a particular stand in a conflict, and more about getting you to care, and in a more concrete way than the abstract way so many of us care.
As Americans not directly involved in the conflict, we have the luxury of consuming the news we want to consume. If we go to the news to hear about politics, we can. If we go to the news to find out about what’s going on in our community, we can. And we can go to the news to be amused or uplifted. Sure we can also find out about what’s going on in the world, but we don’t have to. In a way it’s a shame these games have to exist, that traditional media isn’t enough to get the message to us.
I know bad news can be fatiguing. And I think even the best of us only have the ability to really emotionally commit to a few things we care about. And I’m not saying that Syria or Darfur or ISIS or Boko Haram are the things or the threats you need to care about. But maybe at least a little of our play can be spent seeing the world as other’s see it.
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