Meet Dan Archer, 2016 Restorative Narrative fellow and a pioneer of virtual reality media

Screengrab from “I Survived The Colombian Conflict”
Last December we announced ivoh’s four Restorative Narrative fellows. Each talented fellow has since set out to explore the Restorative Narrative genre in their own unique way. As part of their fellowship, fellows have been working with Pulitzer winner and University of Missouri professor Jacqui Banaszynski since January. The fellowship will continue through June.

Dan Archer, one of ivoh’s 2016 Restorative Narrative fellows, is the founder of Empathetic Media, a new media agency that uses virtual and augmented reality to tell news stories in immersive ways. His work has been published broadly among publications including the BBC, CBC, Vice magazine, Fusion, San Francisco Public Press, American Public Media, Truthout and PBS. The first virtual reality experience from Empathetic Media, Ferguson Firsthand, was published by Fusion in 2015. Ferguson Firsthand offers a virtual reconstruction of the apartment complex where Michael Brown was shot on August 9th, 2014.

Archer brings his strengths and experiences as a graphic journalist and a pioneer of virtual reality journalism to the fellowship. As a fellow he has continued to develop his socially conscious virtual reality work with a project that focuses on post-conflict perspectives in Colombia. We recently asked Archer — a 2014 Reynolds Journalism Institute Fellow and a 2011 Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University — about his work as a Restorative Narrative fellow.

Dan Archer
Dan Archer

Gloria Muñoz: What initially drew you to ivoh’s Restorative Narrative fellowship?

Dan Archer: At the outset, it was the similarity between ivoh’s objectives of focusing on the redemptive, reconciliatory aspect of journalism — as opposed to a more typically more conflict-oriented approach — that led me to ivoh’s site. After reading a handful of articles on the site, I realized how uncanny a fit the fellowship was for my project on Colombia, which is focused on a post-conflict restorative justice scheme. Admittedly, there’s a difference between the two, but at their core I think both approaches share similar values of reconciliation, long-term struggle and hard-won optimism.

Muñoz: Tell us about your story and where you’re at in your reporting process.

Archer: The project is comprised of three immersive experiences from all three sides of the Colombian conflict (civilians, ex-FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas and paramilitaries), as former enemies share their true stories of why they enlisted, their involvement in the conflict and their subsequent demobilization. The virtual reality experience begins in a classroom at the school of San Lorenzo, on the outskirts of Medellin, which is where the restorative justice sessions –where the stories were originally shared- are held. Mary, a civilian, is a former schoolteacher who was terrorized and witnessed a massacre at her school; Mariano, a former guerilla, talks about how the FARC at first felt like a second family to him, but eventually lost track of its founding principles; and Carlos, a former paramilitary for the United Self-Defense Forces (AUC), whose involvement in the program and attempted reintegration into the community has actually put his life on the line.

Muñoz: How is the fellowship helping you develop and tell this story?

Archer: The bi-weekly Skype sessions with Jacqui have been a great help, both from the storytelling aspect as well as the user experience. Jacqui’s command of journalistic narratives can’t be overstated, and her workshop and guidance at our inaugural session in Florida was invaluable. The inverse is also true though: her unfamiliarity with video games and immersive storytelling platforms have forced me not to take user experience for granted and pay close attention to simplifying the first-person experience in order to fit an accessible, intelligible path.

Muñoz: What have you learned so far about Restorative Narrative?

Archer: That in the embryonic field of virtual reality journalism there’s a fine line between giving users/players total agency and the freedom to explore an open world sandbox, and mollycoddling them with too many “pick this up/move over here” signposts, which can dismantle the immersive apparatus we’re trying so hard to build in their own right. The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. Also, to not let the tools get in the way of the story, and to ensure that even with a slick interface, there’s still a real onus on the dramatic, emotional hook to pull the reader through the narrative and give them the incentive to explore.

Muñoz: What advice do you have for other media practitioners who want to tell Restorative Narratives?

Archer: Don’t succumb to the rote three-act structure that might follow traditional stories, and think about the emotional and human connections at the heart of the story. Also, keep things simple! It’s better to build and embellish your story on a pre-established skeletal framework that you’ve established than to be constantly backpeddling and tweaking as you go along. Also, and this might be more true of “experiential” narratives that are VR or video game-based, user test as often as possible on a wide range of audiences, as you’d be surprised how quickly you as the writer/creator take particular parts or interactions in the narrative for granted.

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