Maze3: An Interactive Documentary: Virtual Presence and the Politically Contested

Jamie McRoberts

Maze3: An Interactive Documentary: Virtual Presence and the Politically

Since its inception, interactive documentary has demonstrated an ongoing concern with the negotiation of war and conflict narratives. From early flash-based projects, such as Gaza/Sderot (2008) to the more expansive and participatory 18 Days in Egypt (2011), interactive audiences have been offered various modes to engage with conflicted and contested narratives. This paper focuses on the conversational mode of interactive documentary (Gaudenzi, 2013), which centers upon the user’s spatial immersion within a virtually constructed story world. Inspired by the resurgence of virtual reality technologies and numerous projects, such as the pioneering ‘immersive journalism’ works of Nonny de la Peña, the conversational mode of interactivity has recently gathered considerable momentum.

Projects, such as Project Syria (2014), operating within the conversational mode, have often been described as offering a sense of presence, in which the user feels as though they are inside the virtual environment and may ‘respond realistically to virtual situations and events even though they know these are not real’ (Dela Peña et al. 2010). This phenomenon of using immersive technologies to offer first-person experience of events continues to raise many theoretical and methodological challenges, particularly in relation to politically contested narratives.

This paper will provide a critical reflection on the production of “Maze3: An Interactive Documentary” (2016), that is the focal point of my practice-based doctoral research. “Maze3” offers a first-person immersive experience of the Maze and Long Kesh Prison, a volatile centre-point during a thirty-year, violent conflict over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, known colloquially as the ‘Troubles’ (McDowell 2009).

By means of a three-dimensional game engine that digitally reconstructs the prison, users canenter, uncover and experience the audio-visually recorded memories of those who inhabited the place during the conflict, allowing them to construct and negotiate meanings of the violent past in today’s contested present. Some early research on user-experience of “Maze3” will be outlined, illustrating how such politically contested narratives are in actuality negotiated within such a virtual yet contentious iconic environment.

The paper will conclude with some implications of the conversational mode through this specific application of interactive documentary; reflecting on what effect the sense of presence has on the user, how first-personess affects the user’s emotional response to the narratives and how the architecture and design of virtual space potentially interacts with the telling of and listening to documentary narratives.