The virtual reality (VR) experience I Am A Man starts in a Memphis, Tennessee, alleyway. A garbage truck idles ahead, waiting to receive the trash cans at your feet. It is 1968, and you are a sanitation worker, underpaid and overworked in a segregated system. “One of the things that is eyeopening for some people is that when you look down at your hands, you have the hands of a black man, and that opens up a form of empathy that no other medium can do,” said Derek Ham, creator of I Am A Man and an assistant professor of graphic design and affiliate assistant research professor of architecture at North Carolina State’s College of Design.
Ham was compelled to develop an interactive story on this moment in the civil rights movement after collaborating on North Carolina State University’s Virtual Martin Luther King, Jr. Project. That initiative included an immersive experience for Dr. King’s 1960 “A Creative Protest” speech. It was not recorded, and was delivered in Durham’s now-demolished White Rock Baptist Church, yet the VR experience used reenactment recordings and projections to give visitors the impression of listening to the speech in this lost sanctuary. “It was a simple simulation where you sat in this church and you heard Dr. King preach,” Ham said.
As this year is the 50th anniversary of the Memphis sanitation strike and Dr. King’s assassination, Ham decided it would be meaningful to encourage an awareness of this history through VR. Since the gaming medium puts participants in a first-person view of a digital world, it can be powerful in offering intimate experiences with narratives. I Am A Man culminates with a police officer stopping you on the street and demanding that you put your hands in the air, echoing the racial profiling that persists in 2018. “It is great to see how people are connecting the dots from what was happening in 1968 to what is happening today,” Ham stated.
Supported by the Oculus Launch Pad program, and with historical backing from the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which provided archival resources, I Am A Man is now available for free on Oculus Rift. It has a planned installation at the museum, and Ham has actively toured it to game and film festivals, such as the recent Future of Storytelling (FoST) in New York, where it was awarded the FoST Prize in the Bridging the Divide category.
While Dr. King is a presence in I Am A Man — including when you glimpse him on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel just before a shot rings out — within the Oculus Rift VR headset, your perspective is that of an ordinary sanitation worker. I Am A Man incorporates archival photographs, video, and audio recordings, including the voice of sanitation worker Taylor Rodgers, who explains the poor conditions and marginalization of the workers’ humanity that led to the strike. “There are several moments on the screen where you’ll see news footage of an actual event from the time and there are moments where you’ll see photographs and newspapers that you can pick up,” Ham explained.
Vignettes with these materials are interspersed with reflective moments of interaction, from a scene at your home where you can examine newspaper clippings on a kitchen table, to a street scene where a line of sanitation workers — each wearing an I AM A MAN placard — are ominously monitored by the National Guard’s armored vehicles. Eventually, Ham hopes to involve new technology like the Oculus Quest wireless headset, as some users have said that they wanted the option to march with the demonstrators (you can choose to pick up a sign).
Although I Am A Man only lasts about 15 minutes, it is a compelling example of how VR can offer pathways to empathy. It’s not intended as a substitute for other ways of learning; it’s a way to create a personal connection with the everyday people in a historic moment, to virtually walk in their shoes and imagine what it was like to be there.
“One of the things I couldn’t have predicted was the emotional response people would have to this piece,” Ham said. “Countless times people have been literally in tears. As anyone would experience in going to a memorial, it’s not that it’s triggering in a negative way, but it brings you to a place of reflection.”