Friday, February 15, 2008

A Hood and an Orange Jumpsuit for Your Avatar

I've known documentary filmmaker Nonny de la Peña for years, but I found out recently that she's now moved into also using virtual worlds for consciousness-raising purposess. As the growth of scholarly criticism on documentary videogames shows, this is certainly a rich area in new media studies. And Nonny already has a track record of films about civil liberties, environmental issues, and medical ethics.

For her new project, she's working with a virtual Guantánamo Bay detention facilty for enemy combatants held without traditional Constitutional protections and habeas corpus procedures. The designers maintain a blog called Gone Gitmo, which describes their partnership with the ACLU and some of their virtual philanthropy events, along with the frustration of finding that their build was damaged by interlopers at one point. Check out this machinima film about the exhibit here.

As this YouTube video explains, de la Peña has been working closely with fellow Harvard grad Peggy Weil, who is also on the team developing a new serious game for soldiers in Iraq, ELECT. The premise of the game can be explained as follows:

Imagine you are a soldier assigned to rebuilding efforts in an Iraqi town or you're an officer tasked with keeping the peace in an unstable city. Earning the trust and respect of the citizens you are trying to help is of the utmost importance. Should you bring a gift to your meeting? Should you shake hands? Does the person with the highest title actually hold any power, and how do you find out? Cultural sensitivity and situational understanding are among the necessary tools in your arsenal.

The question, of course, is are videogames the best tools for teaching the principles of deliberative democracy? Although recent research by Ren Reynolds and others looks at collaborative play and collective rule-making in MMO environments, it's difficult to break creating democratic institutions into a series of unit operations. Perhaps the team developing Virtual Congress at Indiana University will end up grappling with similar issues.

You can visit the virtual Gitmo in Second Life by teleporting through this link.

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