Use of Force, Emblematic Group and Nonny de la Peña’s experiment in virtual reality journalism, defies conversation. While speaking with the creators, we all felt awkward using the word “game.” We twisted our tongues calling it an “interactive experience,” and we stumbled over buzzwords trying to describe its mechanics. But the self-described virtual reality documentary project was certainly worth talking about.
By reconstructing four minutes of a moonlit night on the U.S.-Mexican Border, Use of Force recreates the brutal assault of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a Hispanic, undocumented immigrant whose story, Peña tells me, took him to a dark end at the hands of U.S. Border Patrol officers. “[He] came to the country here as a teenager, was brought by his parents, worked very peacefully, was never in trouble with the law for 27 years...[He] did construction, of course with no papers, and then on Mother's day, got caught stealing a bottle of Tequila and a steak, presumably for his wife.”
Rojas was deported, and tried to cross the border a second time to return to his family. He was apprehended by Border Patrol agents, roughed up by one particular officer, and after complaining about it to a supervisor, was left to a dark fate. “The Border Patrol supervisor...sent him into a dark pen with that officer, and ultimately a dozen other border patrol officers, and they actually beat and they tased him to death.”
“For several years they claimed that he was killed because he was resisting arrest, but then these grainy videos surfaced from some cell phones, and I took that material, and I rebuilt the entire scene of what actually happened that night.”
The effect is unnerving. Combining portable virtual reality technology and motion scanning sensors around one corner of the Indiecade firehouse, I stepped into a digital recreation of the world, and was given a cell phone camera with only one minute of video to record four minutes of assault. The strange rule stems from the grainy cell phone videos Peña described, and it dramatically shifts the nature of the event.
“So, clearly you already know that this is a construct, and you know that you're not an actual witness on a scene, and we wanted to give you that feeling that he only had such a short amount of time. We utilized this to kind of make you feel the intensity of what it was like to be a witness of that moment.”
Since catching everything is impossible, your eyes and where you point them are your key tool to capture the event. My satisfaction behind rapidly shooting the abuse turned sour when I realized I missed little moments sprinkled in by Peña and her team. Officers laughing at each other and making jokes and reactions on the bridge above were not captured in my single continuous minute of recorded video.
Though Use of Force might seem like a voyeuristic way to recreate someone’s death, society can still value the recreation of witnessing. When I mentioned to Peña that sometimes people chose to spend more time exploring boundaries than engaging, Peña replied that her team were much more determined to give attention and a voice to Rojas. Just outside the event, players were invited to both write to their Senator about forcing the Border Patrol to investigate the officers who participated in Rojas’ death.
You can see Bryant Francis' Use of Force video below.
Disclaimer: this video recreates a violent act upon an individual.