Coventry University in partnership with the Coventry Telegraph created a virtual reality news game that enables members of the public to experience the effects of a devastating bombing raid on Coventry during the Blitz.
The experience places the audience in Coventry Cathedral on the night of 14 November 1940, in the shoes of firefighters having to extinguish the blaze.
Using the controller linked to the headset, the ‘player’ can start putting out fires by pointing and clicking. News articles published at the time also pop up on the screen when relevant, and the experience finishes with a short quiz.
This scenario was chosen as the Coventry Telegraph publishes related stories each year on the anniversary of the Blitz, often sharing different types of storytelling. A virtual reality model of Coventry Cathedral was also accessible to the team, making the project, financed through Google’s Digital News Initiative, less costly.
"Virtual reality offers a sense of presence within that environment," explained Dr Bianca Wright, the project lead on Coventry Blitz VR and course director for BA Journalism at Coventry University.
"The way the news industry is going, we need to find ways to engage people more with stories that are far removed from their own experience.
"If you think about responses to climate change or the refugee crisis for example, you get the sense that people feel somewhat distanced from it or they feel like it's not something they can relate to.
"A game allows you to do something that nothing else can do, which is to put yourself in the driver's seat," she added.
"The university and the Telegraph chose the Coventry Blitz as it is one of the defining episodes in the city’s history and an important story which needs to be kept alive for future generations," said the announcement of the VR experience on The Coventry Telegraph’s website.
Created by a team of six, the news game was tested in November with a public event, as well as taken into schools to enable school children to experience the game and offer feedback.
Overall, the experience was viewed by more than 500 people, and data was collected about their reactions to the news game.
The team has not yet analysed the entire data set, but initial results show that 71 per cent of the school children found their interaction with the VR news game positive, and 69 per cent of the public said they would seek out similar virtual reality storytelling in the future.
The game also enabled the Coventry Telegraph to reach a younger audience that may not have interacted with the brand before.
"The kids have done activities based on the game and the story experience that they've had, they've written newspaper articles as though they were journalists at the time, and they get to know something about The Telegraph so it's a learning experience in that sense," Wright told Journalism.co.uk.
Virtual reality storytelling has become more commonplace with news organisations including The New York Times and the Guardian often producing more immersive stories on a variety of topics, but adding elements of interaction to the experience is still a nascent journalistic style.
The news game was rather resource intensive to build, requiring the presence of developers on the team, the purchase of kit for testing, and a considerable time investment.
Concerns were also raised over terminology and whether calling the experience a news game would imply that it was trivialising a serious event.
"It's not about replacing traditional coverage, it's really very much about being a complement and another way to engage the audience – not every story can be told this way," said Wright.
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