Based on the testimonies of survivors, Witness: Auschwitz creates a VR replica of the concentration camp.
It's not what most would consider their first choice of virtual escape, but Italian development studio 101% believe virtual reality has untapped potential to immerse and educate the world on the most important parts of human history, starting with its first title, Witness: Auschwitz.
Nestled deep within the halls of this year's Gamescom exhibition, surrounded by colourful caricatures and excitable gamers, was the team from Witness offering a brief glimpse of the upcoming VR title. I managed to experience the opening sequence of the project, and sat down with the developers to ask them why they decided to recreate one of the most devastating historical events imaginable.
"We want to use VR to portray intense experiences,” says creative director Daniele Azara. “And create something useful, educational, for the world. Witnesses from Auschwitz are disappearing because of their age. Books are not enough, movies are not enough – we have to be there, and with VR we can be."
When approaching such a sensitive topic, it's vital to be respectful of the memories of those who lived and died within the infamous concentration camp. Witness is officially supported by the Union of Italian Jewish Communities (UCEI), and executive producer David Gallo explained how an air of respect was a constant throughout Witness' development. “We built on the experience following testimonials of the people who stayed there. We've tried to work with the communities of Auschwitz, who talked us through the details.”
The team has also attempted to speak to living survivors of Auschwitz, to get an accurate picture to work from. “For example, none of us knew if there were lights inside the barracks at night, so we had to ask someone who stayed there some of the details to build the world,” explains Gallo. Azara adds that it's the smaller details they're trying the hardest to get right, believing it's the smaller accuracies that add up to a realistic whole: “You have the soap holders in the bathrooms but there was no water, they had problems with fire so they needed that water to extinguish it.”
“You can only imagine the barracks full with 1,500 people,” says Gallo. “They built those buildings for 400. People couldn't move. That particular stuff, the daily life – we give you the opportunity to live inside it and have your own experience, beyond just reading a book and trying to picture it. It's simply too far for our imagination to grasp.”
The Holocaust was undoubtedly horrific, but the Witness team have a controversial view of the representation of violence in their VR experience. “If you think of Auschwitz, normally you think about horrible, terrible things, which did happen, but we felt these were less important to show in VR as you already know that from the movies,” Azara explains.
"There's a scene where you're given a shovel... you know that you are creating the graves for dead people, but it's not something you see"
“We just show the everyday life of people in the camp. There's a scene where you're given a shovel and, obviously, you know that you are creating the graves for dead people, but it's not something you see. Then there's the sound of a motorcycle engine, because they used the noise to cover up cries from the crematorium, but you don't hear those cries.
“We want to be realistic. It's important to be accurate and it's important for people to understand, but we don't want to make Schindler's List.”
The title describes its age range as running from 7-99. The team have tried to cater the experience to the mass market, rather than focusing on the particularly shocking imagery. “It's not about death; it's about life, and most of all the continuity of life. Despite all the horror that happens, life continues. People live, there is a heritage and there are witnesses. This is the main philosophical goal of the project,” says Azara.
An ethical minefield
Witness: Auschwitz raises important questions about the uses, ethics and purpose of virtual-reality technology. VR is an incredible tool, but the question remains: should its immersive nature be used to portray such weighty experiences?
The decision of the developers to create an experience for such a wide age range could also miss the mark. If preservation of knowledge is the aim, then a focus on accuracy rather than dramatisation must surely take the fore, but it's difficult to approach such a heavy topic from such a broad vantage point: 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz, and 1.1 million died. Death is and was, however you look at it, an absolute core part of the history of the camp. To avoid showing this subject could be considered a misrepresentation of the true history.
Concerns have been raised about the ability of VR to desensitise the user to graphic imagery, but the reverse could also be true. While the team in this instance is avoiding the more violent imagery of the time, similar projects will have to weigh the potential for viewers to be traumatised, especially when dealing with highly accurate representations of real-life events. Even the Witness team has to come to terms with the fact that, despite accuracy being at the forefront of their mind, they're presenting a blinkered, tailored view of the whole story.
It's worth mentioning that this isn't the first time that Auschwitz has been recreated for virtual reality. Last year German authorities used VR to aid in their investigation of Nazi war criminals, demonstrating the versatility of the technology. Still, this level of accuracy is a double-edged sword. If VR can create immersive experiences to the point that they can be used within a criminal investigation, could virtual-reality experiences overstep their bounds as simulations? The question may well be raised as to whether stricter guidelines should be implemented for content available to the public. While Witness has gone to pains to educate and not shock, it cannot be certain that other developers will have the same motivations.
The Holocaust Educational Trust (HET) declined to comment on Witness specifically, although in our conversations the Trust did admit that they'll increasingly have to consider the VR issue, whether it's being used as an educational tool or a different beast altogether. Virtual reality is developing at a rapid rate, and is already being used to depict the brutality of war zones, highlight the claustrophobia of solitary confinement, and provide immersive documentary-like experiences. At a time when living human testimony for the Holocaust is nearing its end, however, we should always be aware of whose world it is we're stepping into.