It’s really easy to forget the context of Traveling While Black. The immersive VR experience has amazing synergy with its topic, and it is so good at what it does that the review writing process became a lesson in letting go of biases and preconceptions. I’ve worked as a public defender and as a policy advocate for bail reform and sentencing reform, and one thing I learned doing those things is that we live in an awful time – scary times – full of anxiety and despair. You hear about bad things happening all the time: deadly mass shootings; people dying due to lack of health care; detention camps filled with migrants; assaults on immigrants by elected officials (and not elected officials); unchecked police violence against unarmed citizens; criminalizing poverty; criminalizing protest; criminalizing homelessness. And it’s not just happening in the United States, but increasingly across the world.
You get overwhelmed with this constant stream of sad stories and unnerving tweets about how bad things are, and eventually anxiety sets in – anxiety about what could happen to you personally. I think that’s why Traveling While Black was so powerful: it puts us directly into that anxiety-inducing reality for a few short minutes. The Oculus Quest version runs about 10 minutes long, which ends up being a sweet spot because it feels neither too long nor too short. Through travel through a subway car and a bus, we encounter subtle instances of racial profiling by police officers who have “randomly” stopped passengers to do invasive searches. It’s a reminder that your skin color, your accent, and your ticket to ride can mean the difference between being let through or being stopped and forced to show identification.
My favorite moment in Traveling While Black happens right at the beginning. You start off on a subway train area, looking at newspaper headlines about how crime is going down while violent crimes are actually not decreasing. Among them is one headline that says “Migrants – Tense relations.” And you’re sitting there thinking: what’s up with all of this? Can I really have my phone out during this experience? What am I supposed to be looking for? Then it hits you: maybe this is a VR simulation of a person who doesn’t speak English as their first language. An easy jump, but also a reminder that people who don’t speak English as their first language are disproportionately affected by police violence.
The sense of anxiety is not something I’ve ever experienced in VR before. You can feel it in your chest, even though you know there’s no need to feel so tense inside of an empty subway station for 10 minutes. It’s the feeling of looking around and having nobody else around to help if things go south with an aggressive cop. That tension reaches its height during one scene where police officers shine flashlights directly into the viewers’ eyes – which is definitely something that happens during stops like these when authorities want to disorient someone they’re stopping.
And then there’s just the terrible reality of our world these days: that people who look like the person controlling the VR existence you’re occupying are more likely to be stopped by police. The horrifying thing about all of this is that even though I was expecting it, it still managed to get me. And what’s worse, I found myself thinking about how much harder it must be for anyone living with autism or mental health conditions – because when situations escalate in dangerous ways, there are no easy outs.
A couple of other notes on Traveling While Black: First, sometimes when you reach out to grab something in VR, your controller will move a little bit and reach out again. It makes sense in context because you want total freedom of movement during this experience, but it also means that your virtual hand is going to automatically reach out again, making it easy for you to almost grab objects you didn’t mean to. Second, this isn’t a very active VR experience: there’s a lot of standing around and observing things happening, which will bore some people but might feel right for others.
I don’t think Traveling While Black is going to change anyone’s minds about whether racism exists or not. That would require sitting down with another person and having a conversation – something that could potentially make sense of the chaos in your head upon leaving the experience. Instead, I think this puts you into someone else’s shoes in a particularly powerful way. And VR has definitely played host to more passive-aggressive videos before (see Notes on Blindness or catatonic ). But Traveling While Black is one of the first times I can remember where VR allows you to feel something that most people don’t get the chance to unless they’ve seen this happening in real life. And it’s powerful.
Travelling While Black was created by Venice, CA-based filmmaker and game designer Tyler Hurd, who has worked on titles like Old Friend and BUTTS. It was commissioned for Mark Allen’s New Frontier Program at Sundance 2018, where I had a chance to play it. You can download the experience on the Oculus Store.