Hunger in LA

​A virtual news game that creates the feeling of 'being there' as a food crisis unfolds in Los Angeles.

Hunger in LA Interview with Nonny de la Peña

What is it?

It is an immersive experience built in virtual reality using game building techniques. The project recreates a factual eyewitness account of a crisis in a food bank line at the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles, where a man falls into a diabetic coma while waiting for food.

Creator De la Peña wearing the goggles to play the virtual reality game

The virtual simulation is based on 7 minutes of unedited real time audio, recorded by a journalism student during the actual incident. The piece requires wearing special 3D virtual reality goggles and makes the user feel as if he or she is on scene as the crisis unfolds. Provided with a first person perspective through the goggles, the user experiences the news rather than seeing or reading it.

How does it work?

In this virtual reality news game, the user can be present and walk around in the news story and interact with other characters in a fully immersive, simulated world.

To construct her story, De la Peña used game-development tools, Unity 3-D, a body-tracking system, and a head-mounted goggle display, along with live recorded audio.

​"Viewers tried to touch non-existent characters and many cried at the conclusion of the piece"

Hunger in LA puts the user literally in the middle of the story, waiting in line for food with other (virtual) clients of the food bank in downtown Los Angeles.

Although the graphics are not completely realistic, the VR goggles track steps and movements and, combined with real audio, provide a profoundly realistic experience that has triggered deeply emotional responses from users in the past.

Nonny de la Peña: "At the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, viewers of the piece tried to touch non-existent characters and many cried at the conclusion of the piece."

De la Peña calls Hunger in LA and example of immersive journalism, which she defines as "the use of virtual reality and 3-D environments, built in a gaming platform, to convey the sights, sounds and feelings of news." 

She believes that immersive storytelling is the future of the news and an important way to engage young audiences with news stories.

Why did they make it?

De la Peña is a former Newsweek correspondent and documentary filmmaker. Her purpose for Hunger in LA is to call attention to the growing issue of hunger in the United States.

An immersive experience and 3D infographic about hunger Nonny de la Peña

De la Peña combines facts and figures with fact-based virtual recreations, which allow for a more intense and interactive encounter with the news.

She says: “I finished the piece with what I consider to be the first immersive 3D infographic, in which we show the real statistics of one in five Americans being hungry. And the situation is even worse for children.”

Why did we select it?

Hunger in LA stands out as a powerful, innovative, and fully immersive news experience, based on real audio recorded at a food bank in Los Angeles.

Rather than using cold facts and figures, De la Peña takes a small scale human drama and turns it into an emotional confrontation with the everyday reality of hunger in one of the richest countries in the world.

Comparable tools

Also see Gone Gitmo by the same author.

Project Syria Nonny de la Peña

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The Guardian’s The Refugee Challenge invites readers to confront the choices real refugees have to make, in order to better understand what it’s like to look for a safe haven in Fortress Europe.

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