Interactive and immersive storytelling has taken many forms over the years, from virtual reality to artificial intelligence. While the entertainment industry professes its excitement over the possibilities of the metaverse, the film and TV worlds tend to sideline emerging media. Don’t expect much talk about it at this year’s Oscar ceremony.
When experimental storytelling projects are acknowledged by awards bodies, they tend to be pigeonholed into generic groups that don’t fully describe the work at hand. Last year, the Emmys’ “Interactive Media” included everything from Baobob Studios’ VR project “Baba Yaga” (which won) to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for an AR component available to home viewers. In 2020, the prize went to “Jeopardy!” for an interactive game.
The Peabody Awards is taking an ambitious step forward to address that shortcoming by adding 12 new awards for Digital and Interactive Storytelling alongside four special awards to leaders in the field. The inaugural legacy media projects announced today, selected by the newly-formed Peabody Interactive Board, survey the past two decades of digital media accomplishments. The result is a more thorough assessment of the diverse work taking place in digital storytelling and the many forms it can take.
In other words, this year’s winners aren’t your average highlights from the past year. The finalists stretch back to 2001 and, along with the recipients of the special awards, showcase the range of innovation in digital media as well as its artistic development. The categories are also a form of historical preservation, as the announcement arrives in tandem with a new website that preserves the projects and introduces them to new audiences.
The Peabodys previously announced plans for the expanded categories last year and the creation of an Interactive Board. The initial winners are designed to provide a historical overview of this expansive field, with winners who have worked in VR, AR, gaming, interactive documentary, and other emerging forms of storytelling. Beginning in 2023, the recipients of the Digital and Interactive awards will be honored for current work.
The new section of the Peabody’s site featuring these projects is a significant step in introducing more audiences across the industry to innovative work that is often difficult to access and misunderstood by the wider entertainment and media industries. In a statement, Peabody Interactive Board chairwoman Diana Williams said that the winners were an extension of the Peabodys’ history of awarding “visionaries who tell stories that illuminate the world around us and perhaps evoke societal change.”
The board also created new legacy awards for the digital and interactive fields. The inaugural “Field Builder” award has gone to Nonny de la Peña, the seminal virtual reality evangelist who is often dubbed the “Godmother of VR.” De la Peña’s work has been seminal in the field of VR journalism and social action, going back to her 2007 project “Gone Gitmo” that used Second Life to create an immersive commentary on the incarnation experience at Guantanamo Bay. Her 2012 VR documentary “Hunger in Los Angeles” was the first such project to be programmed at Sundance. De la Peña was awarded the prize in a pre-recorded speech by “Birdman” filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, whose own immersive VR experience “Carne y Arena” — a commentary on the harrowing experience of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border — was an outgrowth of De la Peña’s work.
The Peabodys also introduced a “Trailblazer Award” that went to Phil Yu, who founded the famous “Angry Asian Man” blog in 2001 that addressed a wide array of issues from a historically marginalized perspective. The blog anticipated a growing online ecosystem eager to embrace iconoclastic voices and eventually evolved into an activist hub and community to combat Asian American stereotypes across virtually every aspect of American society.
Additional special awards were given to the creators of the computer program ELIZA for its language processing program that inspired future A.I. projects, and the British research group Forensic Architecture for developing technology aimed at addressing social justice issues.
The other legacy winners span 15 years and showcase a wide of array of formats, from traditional 360 VR works to interactive audio and crowdsourced video. They include the seminal 2016 VR work “Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness,” which immersed viewers in the experiences of a blind man while demonstrating his ability to map out the world around him; “Star Wars Uncut,” a 2010 effort to consolidate 473 shot-for-shot remakes of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” into 15-second tidbits that amounted to a single remake; and 2007’s “World Without Oil,” an online time-based simulation that imagined a near-future experience in which the entire world faced an oil shortage, with user-generated media contributing to the narrative in real-time.
That may sound like a lot to absorb, but that’s the point: The field has taken on many forms and often required an active audience to appreciate it. Check out the winners below and follow this link to sample the projects (note: VR projects will need to be accessed via a headset, but others are browser-friendly). Synopses are courtesy of the Peabodys.
Like many people of color coming up in the 1980s and ‘90s, Phil Yu had grown accustomed to not seeing himself in mass media. But unlike many, Yu also got angry, and then he found a way to channel it. Angry Asian Man is a blog whose name is an ironic play on the model minority trope and asks: Why aren’t Asians allowed or expected to be angry? The blog began as a way for Yu to express himself and work through how he felt about not seeing his community reflected in media, but found further purpose after successfully helping to mobilize against a clothing company that had released T-shirts featuring racist caricatures of Asian people. This changed the blog’s course from criticism to also include calls to action, providing a look, via an Asian American lens, at everything from pop culture to politics to music to academia. As it became a destination for others seeking community, the blog again transformed into a type of short form conversation. The speed in which today’s audience can call out media for stereotypical representations and/or erasure was built off of the work that Yu has been doing for the last 20 years. He spoke up when others did not. He amplified the work of organizations covering Asian American issues so that they could find broader coalitions. With the message as important as the delivery and consumption medium, Phil continues to shine a light on Asian American issues beyond his blog and into podcasts and publishing. Mainstream media is listening now.
Field Builder Award
Nonny de la Peña
Nonny de la Peña has been at the forefront of emerging media throughout her career, earning the title of “Godmother of VR.” She was an important contributor during a historic period of discovery in beyond-broadcast digital media. Her example catalyzed a generation of storytellers and innovators to invest their genius towards meaning-making in emerging media forms. De la Peña brought important insights to the critiques that virtual reality is too immersive for certain content while making compelling arguments for VR journalism, offering eye-opening examples, and providing best practices for designing embodied experiences of challenging events. Collaborations with leading news organizations set standards in transparency, accuracy, and sourcing for new media. Significant areas of her innovation include room-scale 5DoF immersion; data visualization; flat game-engine storytelling; techniques to bring flat media documentation into immersive space, stimulating technologists to make VR headsets mobile, higher quality, and less expensive; and a platform that democratizes the immersive power of volumetric VR. Her pieces help audiences become intimately aware of the nuances of news issues and events spanning critical subjects like abortion, LGBTQ+ youth, police brutality, conflict zones, solitary confinement, melting ice caps, the Black Lives Matter movement, and more.
In 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum saw the potential in the computers of his day to create a program for the purpose not of processing information or doing scientific calculations, but for the sole intention of making a relationship. This program was ELIZA. ELIZA took the form of what we now call a chatbot. She was presented as a “mock (Rogerian) psychotherapist.” Participants would write to her and she would respond with relevant questions or statements that fueled further conversation. The perception of empathy from ELIZA was so strong that participants often requested privacy while talking to her. It can be easy these days to mistake ELIZA for her descendants—natural language personal assistants like Siri or Alexa. While this software has advanced considerably in the course of the last 50 years, the change in focus to transactional interactions—language as interface—obscures the revolutionary personal narratives that ELIZA created. ELIZA showed the world that a simple computer script could evoke not just one story, but as many stories as there were people who interacted with her. She opened the door to software as a tool not just for business or science, but also for emotional interactions, empathy, and connection.
In the 21st century, states’ and corporations’ arsenals include drones, chemical gasses, computational surveillance, sensors, and disinformation, which are launched at targets remotely through complex computer interfaces and dizzying transnational networks. In these next-level true crimes, there is no obvious smoking gun. Conventional forensics cannot adequately find, collect, analyze, and present evidence to make a case against perpetrators. For the last decade, Forensic Architecture has directed a spectacular coordinated response, led by architect Eyal Weizman. The group has written a new language of evidentiary techniques called “counter-forensics” to advance justice and expose state, military, police, and corporate crimes of magnitude on behalf of advocates and affected communities. Using sophisticated architectural techniques such as lidar, radar, photogrammetry, and advanced platform software, for each case they build an elaborate digital 3D model of the scene of the crime. The team then situates individual pieces of evidence “on stage” within frameworks such as open-source data, satellite data, surveillance footage, citizen video, audio, mobile phone meta-data, allowing for the study of the relational dynamics. Forensic Architecture has co-created an entire new academic field and emergent media practice, using digital 3D modeling for human rights investigation and documentary, to speak truth to computational power on a planetary scale.
Always in Season Island (2010)
The creators of the virtual project Always in Season Island sought to confront the ongoing legacy of American racial terror following their 2019 documentary film (Always in Season) on the history of the lynching of African Americans, They recreated, in virtual life, the setting of the 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana, when 10,000 white men, women, and children came to watch the torture and murder of two African American men. Avoiding gratuitous violence, “Always in Season Island” offered visitors tasks to complete and prompts to consider that either encouraged or stopped the lynching from occurring, ultimately pushing the conventions of the documentary form and challenging audiences to intimately examine their own capacities for both dehumanization and change.
The Beast, A.I. Transmedia Experience (2001)
Originally developed by a small team at Microsoft Games as a marketing campaign to support the 2001 film A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, “The Beast” played out over a massive network of fictional websites and other forms of media that combined to tell a sprawling tale set in the world of A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Following clues hidden in the movie’s trailer and poster, those who found their way into the network were immersed in the storyworld and challenged with puzzles to unlock the next pieces of narrative. This mass-distributed form of storytelling, later dubbed an “Alternate Reality Game,” provided a template for a new way to tell stories over the internet and connected media.
Fatal Force: The Washington Post Police Shootings Database (2015)
Amid outrage over the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, reporter Wesley Lowery suggested that The Post count every fatal police shooting in America. We now know that American police officers shoot and kill about 1,000 people a year, and The Post has consistently made the data accessible through graphics that show with stunning clarity how
victims are disproportionately Black—more than a third of unarmed people—and overwhelmingly young and male. The most salient and impactful works of data journalism fill a void and answer crucial questions that the government or private sector choose not to. With the Fatal Force database, The Post’s work over seven years is an unwavering public service in the fight for criminal justice.
Feminist Frequency (2013)
Following the 2009 launch of her feminist media criticism website by the same name, Anita Sarkeesian advanced our conservations about popular culture, and specifically the representation of gender in media and “geek” and gamer culture, through her Feminist Frequency YouTube channel. Her lightning rod series “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” exposed the persistent denigration of women in one of the most popular media forms in the world and angered parts of the largely male gamer demographic, prompting the #GamerGate scandal when she endured vicious online harassment and death threats. Through it all, she continued to tell stories in service of manifesting a better world for women, queers, and other marginalized people.
How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk: NY Times Dialect Quiz (2013)
The New York Times’ work “How Y’all, Youse and You Guys Talk”—or, because of its sheer ubiquity, simply the “dialect quiz”—became a cultural touchstone immediately after its launch in 2013. After answering a series of questions about the words you use, the interactive graphic returns a map that, more often than not, pinpoints where you live or grew up. What started as a personal side project of graphics editor Josh Katz was used by tens of millions of visitors over the span of a few weeks and quickly became at the time the most-viewed piece of content in New York Times history for its ability to tell individuals a personal story about themselves while also drawing a limitless set of maps of cultural geography that still delights new readers today.
Journey is quiet, abstract, and spiritual, yet riveting. As a player you are a robed figure, seemingly lost, while meeting anonymous strangers, other players searching for what they do not know. Journey shook the gaming world when it was released a decade ago, crystallizing the spirit of a burgeoning generation of indie game developers, whose tender, artisanal works recalled the wonder of the earliest days of gaming. In Journey we are encouraged to collaborate with anonymous strangers as opposed to shouting at them for competition or clout. We are asked to slow down, stop talking, and pay attention to history and the ecosystem around us.
Never Alone (2014)
“Kunuuksaayuka,” a traditional Alaskan Iñupiat tale, follows a young girl, Nuna, who fights against an eternal winter storm threatening her community’s survival. For the 2014 atmospheric puzzle-platformer Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, this epic journey has been adapted by writer, storyteller, and poet Ishmael Hope (Iñupiaq and Tlingit) into an artful and accessible educational game. Throughout the game, players encounter powerful video vignettes of interviews with 40 Iñupiat Elders who share legends, cultural practices, and traditional world-views. Importantly, the project originated with Upper One Games, a for-profit subsidiary of Cook Inlet Tribal Council established in 2012 as the first Indigenous-owned commercial game company in the United States.
Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness (2016)
Audiogaming, Novelab ARTE France With the Support of CNC
Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness is a beautifully crafted landmark 360 film project that premiered in 2016 in collaboration with an acclaimed flat feature film documentary. While the feature film (Notes on Blindness) told the story of an articulate professor documenting his transition from being a sighted to an unsighted person, the immersive piece gave audiences an experience of echolocation. In effect, the tables were turned, where sighted people shifted from sympathy for someone who “lost” a sense, to a realization that they have been so dominated by eye data inputs to their brain they have become “sound blind. The experience answered the “why immersion?” question with innovative design technique, a compelling experience, an emotional journey, and transcendent aesthetics—all elements of an excellent story.
Papers Please (2013)
First released in 2013, Papers, Please puts players in a position of authority in a dystopian police state. In this strategy simulation video game, the player is in the shoes of an immigration officer stationed in a country bordered by hostile neighbors. With little time to review and process documents, the player must make fast-paced decisions to determine who can cross the border. And with each wrong decision, the consequences can be dire, resulting in life or death stakes for your family who are dependent on your earnings. Papers, Please breaks away from the traditional tropes of kill or be killed but instead focuses on the ever-present complex, intricate, and personal choices resulting from geopolitical forces.
In the 2015 web-based online documentary Quipu Project audiences click on colored-dot icons, each representing testimonies of more than 100 women from remote mountainous locations across Peru, who share their anonymous stories in voice messages after dialing a free phone
number. In recording after recording, they recount being among the nearly 300,000 women (and thousands of men) brutally subjected to sterilization under the government of former president Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s. Quipu Project elegantly fused low-tech phone technology for recording with a high-tech digital interface for the user experience, brilliantly weaving together ancient and new technologies to create a powerful and poetic online collection of co-created, participatory oral histories in a movement for justice and survivor support.
Star Wars Uncut (2010)
Bryan Pugh, Aaron Valdez, KK Apple, Todd Roman, Ivan Askwith
Star Wars Uncut—a 2010 online film produced, edited, and directed by Casey Pugh—is a crowdsourced shot-for-shot re-creation of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, consisting of 473 segments, 15 seconds each, created and submitted by fans from all over the globe. In 2009, Pugh created a website where fans could sign up to re-create scenes from the original Star Wars film. When there were multiple contenders, there was a vote to determine whose work made it into the final film, which would then be altered in real time. Star Wars Uncut is a great example of fanfiction involving a beloved IP, a best-in-class show of how crowdsourced content can not only entertain, but also make a familiar story delightful in a new way.
World Without Oil (2007)
Unfolding online in 2007, World Without Oil simulated a global oil shortage. Over the 32 days the game ran, each day played out one week of events, charting worldwide ramifications of a global oil shock. The game invited players from around the world to tell their own stories of how the oil shortage was affecting their lives, through blog posts, voice recordings, pictures, video, and other user-generated content. Collaborating on potential solutions to a global crisis, the players together helped create a fictional documentary, raising important questions of sustainability and resiliency.
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