Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Counter-Surveillance, Documentary, Interactive Documentary, Mass Incarceration, Refugees, Serious Games
This dissertation analyzes digital documentaries that utilize second-person address and roleplay to make users feel implicated in contemporary refugee crises, mass incarceration in the U.S., and state and corporate surveillances. Digital documentaries are seemingly more interactive and participatory than linear film and video documentary as they are comprised of a variety of auditory, visual, and written media, utilize networked technologies, and turn the documentary audience into a documentary user. I draw on scholarship from documentary, game, new media, and surveillance studies to analyze how second-person address in digital documentaries is configured through user positioning and direct address within the works themselves, in how organizations and creators frame their productions, and in how users and players respond in reviews, discussion forums, and Let’s Plays. I build on Michael Rothberg’s theorization of the implicated subject to explore how these digital documentaries bring the user into complicated relationality with national and international crises. Visually and experientially implying that users bear responsibility to the subjects and subject matter, these works can, on the one hand, replicate modes of liberal empathy for suffering, distant “others” and, on the other, simulate one’s own surveillant modes of observation or behavior to mirror it back to users and open up one’s offline thoughts and actions as a site of critique.
This dissertation charts how second-person address shapes and limits the political potentialities of documentary projects and connects them to a lineage of direct address from educational and propaganda films, museum exhibits, and serious games. By centralizing the user’s individual experience, the interventions that second-person digital documentaries can make into social discourse change from public, institution-based education to more privatized forms of sentimental education geared toward personal edification and self-realization. Unless tied to larger initiatives or movements, I argue that digital documentaries reaffirm a neoliberal politics of individual self-regulation and governance instead of public education or collective, social intervention.
Chapter one focuses on 360-degree virtual reality (VR) documentaries that utilize the feeling of presence to position users as if among refugees and as witnesses to refugee experiences in camps outside of Europe and various dwellings in European cities. My analysis of Clouds Over Sidra (Gabo Arora and Chris Milk 2015) and The Displaced (Imraan Ismail and Ben C. Solomon 2015) shows how these VR documentaries utilize observational realism to make believable and immersive their representations of already empathetic refugees. The empathetic refugee is often young, vulnerable, depoliticized and dehistoricized and is a well-known trope in other forms of humanitarian media that continues into VR documentaries. Forced to Flee (Zahra Rasool 2017), I am Rohingya (Zahra Rasool 2017), So Leben Flüchtlinge in Berlin (Berliner Morgenpost 2017), and Limbo: A Virtual Experience of Waiting for Asylum (Shehani Fernando 2017) disrupt easy immersions into realistic-looking VR experiences of stereotyped representations and user identifications and, instead, can reflect back the user’s political inaction and surveillant modes of looking.
Chapter two analyzes web- and social media messenger-based documentaries that position users as outsiders to U.S. mass incarceration. Users are noir-style co-investigators into the crime of the prison-industrial complex in Fremont County, Colorado in Prison Valley: The Prison Industry (David Dufresne and Philippe Brault 2009) and co-riders on a bus transporting prison inmates’ loved ones for visitations to correctional facilities in Upstate New York in A Temporary Contact (Nirit Peled and Sara Kolster 2017). Both projects construct an experience of carceral constraint for users to reinscribe seeming “outside” places, people, and experiences as within the continuation of the racialized and classed politics of state control through mass incarceration. These projects utilize interfaces that create a tension between replicating an exploitative hierarchy between non-incarcerated users and those subject to mass incarceration while also de-immersing users in these experiences to mirror back the user’s supposed distance from this mode of state regulation.
Chapter three investigates a type of digital game I term dataveillance simulation games, which position users as surveillance agents in ambiguously dystopian nation-states and force users to use their own critical thinking and judgment to construct the criminality of state-sanctioned surveillance targets. Project Perfect Citizen (Bad Cop Studios 2016), Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You (Osmotic Studios 2016), and Papers, Please (Lucas Pope 2013) all create a dual empathy: players empathize with bureaucratic surveillance agents while empathizing with surveillance targets whose emails, text messages, documents, and social media profiles reveal them to be “normal” people. I argue that while these games show criminality to be a construct, they also utilize a racialized fear of the loss of one’s individual privacy to make players feel like they too could be surveillance targets.
Chapter four examines personalized digital documentaries that turn users and their data into the subject matter. Do Not Track (Brett Gaylor 2015), A Week with Wanda (Joe Derry Hall 2019), Stealing Ur Feelings (Noah Levenson 2019), Alfred Premium (Joël Ronez, Pierre Corbinais, and Émilie F. Grenier 2019), How They Watch You (Nick Briz 2021), and Fairly Intelligent™ (A.M. Darke 2021) track, monitor, and confront users with their own online behavior to reflect back a corporate surveillance that collects, analyzes, and exploits user data for profit. These digital documentaries utilize emotional fear- and humor-based appeals to persuade users that these technologies are controlling them, shaping their desires and needs, and dehumanizing them through algorithmic surveillance.
Gleesing, Elizabeth, "Second-Person Surveillance: Politics of User Implication in Digital Documentaries" (2023). Dissertations - ALL. 1663.