Nick Pilarski is an unabashedly proud Midwesterner.

But a community within the nation’s largest city has been a focal point for him in recent years as he has helmed a project that intermingles storytelling with virtual video game technology.

Pilarski, a professor at Carthage College, helped shepherd a project nearing completion on efforts to restore peace in Brownsville, a neighborhood within Brooklyn, N.Y., that holds the distinction of having the highest concentration of public housing in the U.S.

Brownsville also has a deep history of poverty and violence.

But Pilarski, who had an opportunity to immerse himself within the community, said he saw boundless opportunity and began collaborating with neighborhood residents on a project to help turn the tide of systemic issues.

That project, dubbed “Fireflies,” has been described as the largest virtual reality documentary ever created.

The goal, Pilarski said, is to use gaming technology as a mechanism that gives users a glimpse into the community.

“This is an area that historically has experienced violence,” Pilarski said. “There are long-term tensions and patterns of broken and structural issues.”

Grad school project

Pilarski, who joined the Carthage faculty in January 2018, became intimately acquainted with Brownsville through an opportunity in graduate school.

“An opportunity was given to me to fellow and work in Brownsville,” Pilarski said. “My main issue has been about class. I had the opportunity to meet people there. I wanted to look at ways to improve the situation.”

The name behind the video game project is symbolic and closely aligned to what Pilarski said he hopes users will take away from the experience.

Fireflies, of course, can light up the night sky with their natural-born abilities, and Pilarski said the goal of the endeavor is to light up the Brownsville neighborhood with renewed hope and optimism

Project nearing end

The project, which began three years ago, is in the post-production phase, Pilarski said. More than 100 Brooklyn residents within Brownsville played a role in creating the project.

“Young people from all of the different housing developments worked on it together,” Pilarski said. “They’re trying to use technology to solve real problems.”

The project also has local hands involved. Pilarski said several Carthage students are assisting with the finishing stages of the project, which is set to be released to the public early next year.

The work of Pilarski and others on the team has gained growing, widespread attention. Officials within the city of New York have officially endorsed the project.

Finalist for award

More recently, Pilarski also caught the attention of the Tim Hetherington Trust, which named him and his team as a finalist to the organization’s annual Visionary Award.

Hetherington, who was killed in the Libyan civil war in 2011, was noted for his human rights advocacy work, in addition to his journalism and visual storytelling abilities.

Pilarski described being named to the Visionary Award as “an extreme honor,” but said he sees a greater purpose behind the recognition.

“I’m happy that these young people, who are putting their hearts into this, are being recognized,” Pilarski said. “It is important that these stories are being told on this scale.”

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