Gone Gitmo

An immersive docu-game based on the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, originally designed for Second Life and now available in Unity, based on actual reporting and facts.

Nonny de la Peña explains the Gone Gitmo experience VPRO Backlight

What is it?

Guantánamo Bay, Cuba - colloquially known as 'Gitmo' - is one of the world’s most famous and controversial prisoner-of-war camps, home to hundreds of detainees from the United States’ 'War on Terror'.

Following on her 2004 documentary Unconstitutional about Guantánamo Bay, journalist Nonny de la Peña teamed up with artist Peggy Weil to make Gone Gitmo.

A virtual but accessible version of the prison, in contrast to the real but inaccessible prison, Gone Gitmo is a fact-based simulation of Guantanamo Bay. The 'player' enters as a prisoner and discovers what’s it like to be imprisoned in the camp and lose his or her civil rights.

Since journalists are not allowed inside the camp, the reconstruction is based on interviews with former prisoners, videos and photos from a variety of official sources and legal materials that detail the plight of Gitmo prisoners.

How does it work?

The original version of Gone Gitmo, no longer running, was a virtual re-creation of the Guantánamo Bay prison in Second Life, a popular virtual world platform. In 2013, De la Peña and Weil recreated Gone Gitmo in Unity3D as a docu-game and first person experience.

Full tour experience Nonny de la Peña

In the game, users go through a virtual detention inside the prison camp and are immersed in the experience of being taken prisoner and losing their habeas corpus rights. The player’s avatar is briefly bound, hooded and forced to kneel in the same way that detainees were taken to the prison.

After arriving in the virtual replica of Camp X-Ray, players are free to explore the camp where various screens play clips from De la Peña’s film 'Unconstitutional' (2004) and from original U.S. Defense Department footage in order to create a spatial narrative.

Why did they make it?

Nonny de la Peña is one of the founders of immersive journalism, which uses new technologies to bring users a sense of 'being there'. She defines immersive journalism as "the use of virtual reality and 3-D environments, built in a gaming platform, to convey the sights, sounds and feelings of news.”

Participants can enter the news stories as themselves, as visitors gaining first-hand access to a virtual version of the location of the story - or as a character depicted in the story. In this way, they can have a different level of understanding from reading a print story or watching news on television or online.

De la Peña believes that immersive storytelling is the future of the news and an important way to engage young audiences with global news stories. “We’re looking at a new medium that’s here to stay, and we need to be thinking about how to use it”, she said at a conference at USC Annenberg in 2011.

“How many kids are gaming? All of them. This is not a unique batch of individuals. It’s a growing audience. This has become a critical place where we can still tell news stories”, she said, comparing the state of gaming to the emergence of radio and television.

Why did we select it?

Gone Gitmo is a pioneering journalism project using fact-based virtual reality to tell an important news story about an inaccessible prison camp. It makes the invisible visible.

Furthermore, by offering a first person perspective on a hidden news event, Gone Gitmo opens up a range of new possibilities for users to be immersed in the news and to engage with it actively. Through immersion in virtual environments and first person storytelling, docu-game Gone Gitmo adds an innovative dimension to the news.

Although the building of virtual worlds for news games is still costly and time-consuming, we expect it will become more prevalent and influential in the future.

Nonny de la Peña about virtual reality VPRO Blacklight

Besides prototyping immersive news stories, De la Peña also contributes actively to the discovery of best practices and the discussion about ethics for a largely unexplored field.

De la Peña: “For example, there is an issue here when you have virtual bodies - is it too subjective? How do you retain objectivity? How do you edit an immersive journalism story? You have to take pieces out and leave pieces in. There are always editorial decisions. What are the best practices for doing it in a virtual world?”

Some other docu-games

Also see our case description of  Hunger in LA by Nonny de la Peña.

JFK Reloaded puts the player in the role of Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. The player is then scored on how closely one's version of the assassination matches the report of the Warren Commission: first shot missed, second hit JFK's neck and third on the head.

Project Syria Nonny de la Peña

According to the company, the primary aim of the game was "to establish the most likely facts of what happened on 1963-11-22 by running the world’s first mass-participation forensic construction", the theory being that a player could help prove that Lee Harvey Oswald had the "means and the opportunity to commit the crime", and thus help prove the Warren Commission's findings.

The Guardian’s The Refugee Challenge invites the reader to make the choices real refugees have to make. After each choice players get a new challenge to solve, so they’ll get closer to the experience of looking for safety in Fortress Europe.

Project Syria is Nonny’s latest immersive journalism piece, first shown at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2014.