Monday, 30 January 2012

War or gaming fun? Spotting the difference

A week ago I wrote a piece about ITV's blunder in which video game footage taken from YouTube found it's way into a documentary about Gaddafi. Ofcom were less than pleased with the lack of due process and compliance breaches on display. A few days ago, a BBC picture editor (Phil Coomes) wrote a playful piece in which he stressed the blurring of real and virtual worlds given the popularity and success of increasingly photorealistic video games depicting war or conflicts.

I only came across this article after a colleague of mine forwarded me the URL devoid of context. I think he knew it would wind me up and the gist of my response to the article can be found below.


I get pretty confused about these kinds of posts from journalists, in which they attempt to link the digital representations of (usually) fictional war-based games with real world combat. I get that still images can look similar but there's a world of difference between experiencing war first hand and picking up a controller or a mouse and playing in a virtual world with strangers on the Internet (as in Battlefield 3 or Modern Warfare 3). Granted, Coomes was responding to a point raised by the photographer John Cantile, who claimed that the level of realism was such that the "next sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may not even have left their bedrooms". The rest of the article seems to give way to Cantile's experiences rather than being the work of Coomes.

What irks me about these kinds of claims is the easy at which the impacts of one experience (war) are neatly overlaid  onto that of another (gaming) at the level of photorealism. You'd think that there's never been a thing called cinema in which actors depict realistic events a la vérite. When reading through the Ofcom report into the ITV blunder it's almost understandable how the game footage form ArmA 2 made it's way into a documentary - a failure of basic fact-checking before running with something grabbed from the internet, but it's another thing entirely to compare gaming to the real experience of warfare. This should be apparent to Cantile as he has photographed battalions in Sirte, Libya.


I'm sure Cantile felt "drained" after playing Battlefield 3 for many hours - I do too, but I also feel really drained after playing FIFA or Fat Princess online for large periods of time. However, I don't make the mistake of thinking that I am at the Bernabéu of that I've ever really played there, setting up goals for Lionel Messi and basking in the cheers or boos from fans and oppositional supporters alike.

The sound mix for Battlefield 3 is phenomenal - you can get incredibly disoriented with rockets and explosions erupting all around your character. This really can be a "hellish cacophony"as Cantile claims. It sounds even better with an expensive pair of headphones but that can break the verisimilitude - it's not often soldiers storm battlefields with big headphones, a games controller or a mouse and keyboard. I note he was a playing on PC - the only real injury the contemporary digital soldier will experience is Repetitive Strain Injury?

I know what happens when a player gets gets shot in Battlefield 3 as I've been killed several thousand times. You get a kill-cam of the player who shot you, overlaid with stats about your 'nemesis' (eg their weapon, their class, their personal kill/death ratio) before being dumped to a character load-out screen to do it all again. Very real. And let's not even go into how bad the texture 'pop-in' is on the PS3, further heightening the supposed reality effect! The texture mapping and frame-rate hardly contributes to the replication of reality (neither does having an on screen radar or ammo count). Just witness the realistic text effects below:


Cantile has spent some time attempting to match real world images to those taken in-game saying: "In some cases it is actually quite hard to tell the difference between my photographs and the computer version, which is deeply worrying. The level of detail is so precise that the virtual war zone is as convincing as the real thing". I'm not sure how worrying it is. As I've alluded to earlier, there are many other media forms that "look" real, but are not - they are representational or, in the case of games, simulational (see Gonzalo Frasca on this point). I think this is the underlying anxiety in the article - a point that is hinted at rather than explicitly addressed, and one which has connections with other moral panics about media forms and their supposed effects.

So the essence of the piece can be summarised thusly: still images taken from some war-based video games look like real combat environments. And rightly so given that vast swathes of research money has been vested in making these products look similar to the actions they depict in order to ramp up the dramatic experiences of gameplay. But it's somewhat disingenuous to claim that we should be worried about the similarities between static images of two completely different experiences 

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