At the 2018 XR For Change, Resham Sidhu, Creative Director of design agency AKQA, took the opportunity to discuss efforts that would be considered VR for Good in her session, "Storyworlds in Virtual Reality." Sidhu stressed that effective VR would consider the entire experience. "In VR, you are not storytelling. You are storyLIVING," as she put it. "You are living the story."
She describes Mexican film director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning Carne y Arena as a VR experience where she felt her brain was tricked into believing she was actually experiencing virtual reality. Carne y Arena, which had its debut at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, allows visitors to step into the lives of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Coupled with the cold, the weight of a backpack, and actual sand under toes, Carne y Arena is more than VR. It's part-immersive theatre, a mixture of documentary and spectacle. Iñárritu, best known for his work on Birdman and The Revenant, based his script on the interviews of Mexican and Central American refugees, some of whose actual stories are featured (in their own words) in the D.C. installation. Visitors are profoundly affected by these tales, especially after walked through the desert with these same people in the VR segment.
The video below shows a bit of the making of Carne y Arena.
Because Carne y Arena does require a physical location, it is limited in the amount of people it can reach and affect, but tickets have sold out wherever it is installed. And of course, since Carne y Arena, while definitely an experience, is meant to be a VR film, not a game, it's impossible to avoid the U.S. Border Patrol and the impending drama.
Could VR games achieve the same high quality and social impact? I think so, though it would be trickier, and we'd have to think long and hard about what interactivity adds to the equation.
Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.