I am very much a fan of virtual reality. While I mainly use my Oculus Quest to play Tetris Effect and live out my fanboy fantasies of skirtin’ in an X-Wing, the technology is capable of so much more than just spectacle-fueled gaming. Case in point, a group of programmers are working on games that allow users to experience racism firsthand.
According to Axios, the projects are being developed at universities and private labs across the country. While mostly intended as tools for educators, the games could have some commercial appeal.
These include games like I Am A Man, which places you as a participant at the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike and grants players a firsthand experience of the events that led up to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Traveling While Black, currently available on the Oculus Quest, is set around the historic Ben’s Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., and shows what it was like to travel while Black during the Jim Crow era.
If you’re curious about these experiences but don’t have a bougie VR headset, no worries! You can download these games directly to your computer and experience them as an interactive 360 video.
I think this is an inspired and incredibly forward-thinking use of the technology. If you’ve never played in VR, it’s hard to truly describe just how immersive it can be. After getting your bearings, you truly feel like you’re in another world. Using that immersion as a way to build empathy in players is, to me, a truly beautiful thing.
Even outside of VR, just experiencing racism in a video game can be a somewhat transformative experience. I distinctly remember playing Mafia III for the first time. It’s a game set in a fictional city in the American South during the late 1960s and you play as a Black protagonist. The game doesn’t shy away from the fact that you’re a Black man during a time where casual racism is the norm.
Walking down the street and seeing non-playable characters (NPCs) try to avoid you because of your race, or just having the N-word casually hurled at you was, to put it lightly, some shit. Even though I’ve been called nigger in real life, it was somewhat eye-opening to play through what was a common reality for both my gramps and my nana back in the day. I can only imagine how that experience would be intensified with a VR headset.
“This is a powerful medium that allows you to experience the perspective of another person, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll change your own perspective [on] how people experienced life as a Black person,” Derek Ham, creator of I Am A Man, told Axios.
As an educational tool, this could be incredible if VR headsets eventually make their way into the classroom. Who knows, maybe even some abject racist will get drunk, download it for a laugh, and actually come away learning something.
Unlikely, but a man can dream.