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Project Syria VR experience arrives on Steam to racist, vitriolic reviews

Title created for World Economic Forum

Project Syria screenshot
Emblematic Group

Project Syria, a virtual reality experience created by immersive journalism progenitor Nonny de la Pena about child refugees, went live on Steam this week to mostly racist and politically vitriolic reviews.

The free experience was created in 2014 for the World Economic Forum to showcase the plight of children fleeing Syria. It has been shown at events in Hong Kong, London, Sheffield and New York and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, all to overwhelmingly positive reactions.

But a majority of the 33 Steam users who have written reviews about the experience are less than happy to find Project Syria in the Steam store.


“Leftist propaganda,” wrote another.

“This disgusts me,” a third wrote.

Many of the other reviews were simply racist tirades.

The short experience, which can be viewed using Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, opens up on a scene of a child playing on a street corner in Syria when a missile strike hits. A voice over presents some of the facts surrounding Syrian refugees, in particular children refugees, as the user is dropped into several other scenes.

“Nearly one half of Syria’s 23 million people have been displaced in its civil war and no group has been as severely affected as children,” according to the experience description. “Children make up more than half of the three million refugees living in camps or makeshift housing and some news reports indicate that children are actually being specifically targeted in the violence.”

Project Syria is one of many works created by de la Pena that uses virtual reality to explore a variety of news and subjects ranging from police use of force to what it’s like to drive in a Formula 1 grand prix. Her other works include Hunger in Los Angeles, a Formula One Experience, Use of Force, One Dark Night and Kiya.

De la Pena got her start in virtual reality as a research fellow at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism. She eventually shifted over to the MxR Lab where she worked with Mark Bolas. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, at the time a part-time employee at the lab, helped create the tech that ran one of her first major projects, which examined hunger in the U.S.

De la Pena, who co-founded Emblematic Group to focus on creating more of these experiences, told Polygon last month that the team was working to bring over these seminal early works of VR journalism to Steam to allow more people to experience them.

You can read more about her work and the other 24 VR pioneers who helped shape the current state of virtual reality in this month’s Polygon cover story.

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