I Experienced Michael Brown's Death in Virtual Reality, and It Was Incredibly Unsettling

Though the precise events of August 9 in Ferguson will never be known, we've all formed an idea through numerous testimonies and eyewitness accounts. Each account can differ quite drastically, however, depending on who's relaying it. Trying to offer an interactive account of what happened that day, graphic journalist Dan Archer created for Fusion a virtual reality experience of the Michael Brown shooting from every perspective.

Yes, really. Through the combination of interactive virtual reality and graphic comics, you can actually experience multiple versions of the shooting based on each eyewitness account. After "experiencing" the Ferguson shooting firsthand, I feel even more unsettled.

Archer described his project to Fusion, explaining that "the comics in this story are based on the accounts given to media outlets such as CNN and NBC by eight people who witnessed Michael Brown’s death." He went on:

The drawings reflect my interpretations of the events described by witnesses. They are based on recorded witness accounts, but the visual interpretations of the recordings involved some artistic license.

In order to create an immersive, interactive scene of the crime, Archer studied witness accounts, photographs of the scene, and visited the location himself.

The specific locations of the eyewitnesses were generated based on first-hand visits to the scene, cross-referenced with footage that some of those witnesses made publicly available.... The virtual reality environment in the game was informed by photos taken in Ferguson at the Canfield Green apartments complex, where Brown was shot.

The entire experience includes the shooting from the perspectives of eight people:

  • Dorian Johnson, Brown's friend who was with him when he was shot.
  • Josie, who claimed to be Wilson's friend and told his alleged side of the story to a radio station.
  • Piaget Crenshaw, who witnessed the shooting from her bedroom window.
  • Tiffany Mitchell, who was on her way to Piaget's apartment.
  • Glide user, who unintentionally recorded Wilson's shots when he was using Glide to record a message to his girlfriend.
  • Michael Brady, a resident of the Canfield Green apartments who recorded the scene from the street.
  • Construction workers, whose reactions immediately after the shooting were recorded.
  • "Black Canseco," a YouTube user who posted footage from his smartphone that shows Brown's body lying in the street after the shooting.

It's hard not to have a visceral reaction to Archer's program. The idea of inserting yourself into the shooting is jarring, to say the least. It sounds like the type of thing that would only appeal to violence-prone gamers and Internet trolls fascinated with the sick and twisted.

But upon closer inspection, Archer's virtual reality experience reveals itself to be a powerful experiment in graphic journalism and interactive storytelling.

Looking at a visual representation of the events in Ferguson that day helps you picture the scene, and the graphic comics serve to make you feel almost like you're there.

As I navigated from one eyewitness to another, what struck me most was the stark contrast between Josie's account and every other account. She claims that Brown started punching Wilson in the car, grabbed for his gun, and charged at him in the street, which is similar to Wilson's own testimony.

This drastically contradicts the accounts of other eyewitnesses. They claimed to have seen Brown standing with his hands up and Wilson continuing to fire at him.

You can try the experience yourself here (though you'll have to download the Unity game engine first).

Fusion on YouTube

Images: Dan Archer, Fusion