War or gaming fun? Spot the difference

A flight from USMC ‘Scarface’ squadron takes off from Camp Bastion for close air support mission over Helmand province, Afghanistan by John Cantlie (left) Still from the game Arma 2 (right) Which one is the real thing?

The blurring of reality and the virtual world has come full circle. Just over twenty years ago I can remember watching the first stirrings of the Gulf War, arguably the first television war, and one where the images of missile strikes were commonplace.

The world watched pictures beamed from the missiles as they made their way to their intended target, or in some cases to a different spot entirely. War seemed remote, and the visuals did nothing to convey the reality for those on the wrong end of events.

Today we are used to seeing real time reports from across the globe, technology has advanced and anyone with an internet connection can travel to far-off places, even imaginary worlds, from their armchair.

The world of video games has progressed too. Some seem real, as highlighted by a recent Ofcom ruling that ITV misled viewers by airing footage claimed to have been shot by the IRA, which was actually material taken from a video game.

Labelled "IRA Film 1988", it was described as film shot by the IRA of its members attempting to down a British Army helicopter in June 1988. However, the pictures were actually taken from a game called Arma 2.

Photographer John Cantlie raised an interesting point with me recently. As the latest generation of computer war games are so realistic, he wondered, perhaps the next sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may not even have left their bedrooms.

Working with Ivan Buchta at Bohemia Interactive Studios, who developed Arma 2, he matched his own photos with scenes from the virtual war zone.

John Cantlie on his war zone v war game images

The last really good session of the game Battlefield 3 I played on my PC left me, I'm forced to admit, somewhat drained.

Sniper team from Stryker Brigade, US Army target insurgents from firebase GhundeyGhar near Highway One in Kandahar province, Afghanistan by John Cantlie (top) Still from the game Arma 2 (bottom) Compare the two. John's photo, top, is faithfully recreated in a scene from the Arma 2 video game

The noise of gunfire and rocket explosions, the speed at which things changed, the way it was impossible to tell from where incoming fire was coming, and the charge for enemy positions were both exhausting and exhilarating. I was desperate for another go.

But it reminded me uncannily of a long, bloody day in Libya on 24 September 2011.

I was alongside a rebel battalion photographing for The Sunday Times as they pushed headlong into Sirte, the last pro-Gaddafi stronghold in the country. It was a nasty day, Gaddafi's forces amassed and stopped the rebel advance dead in its tracks, killing 24 and wounding over 70 by the time it got dark.

But the noises, the hellish cacophony, the crashes of the RPGs and the complete chaos - all of it had been eerily similar to that hour-long session of digitised warfare on my computer.

My mouse hand was sweaty and my pupils dilated.

Bedroom PTSD or too much coffee? Either way, modern combat games are closer in their intended effects to the real thing than many realise.

Photograph of 1st Infantry Division by John Cantlie (top) Still from Arma 2 (bottom) A US soldier searches for insurgent positions in Ramadi, Iraq (top), and a still from Arma 2

So I went through my photos taken from various combat zones, and attempted to replicate them in a computer game.

The game Arma 2 was ideal - it's more of a war simulation than an all-out blaster, with the correct uniforms, vehicles and weapons as well as varied terrains and bang-bang firefights.

Plenty of hours fiddling within the gaming environment, alongside Ivan who developed the game, produced some pretty remarkable results.

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.

Throw in modern sound effects and a determined and cunning foe, and a foot patrol in Upper Gereshk is less taxing than a few hours sat at the keyboard.

At this rate I'll be out of a job in five years. But that'll free up more time for playing. Below are more of my war zone v war game images to compare and contrast.

US soldiers of 1ID during IED clearing operation supported by armour in Ramadi, Anbar province, Iraq by John Cantlie (top) Still from the game Arma 2 (bottom) US soldiers of 1ID during IED clearing operation in Ramadi, Iraq (top)
Iraqi militia wait for orders to advance through a city block during operation in Ta’meem district of Ramadi, Iraq by John Cantlie (top) Still from the game Arma 2 (bottom) Iraqi militia wait for orders to advance through a city block in the Ta'meem district of Ramadi, Iraq (top)
Snipers from 2/12 Infantry Division look for insurgent movement in the Pech valley, Kunar province, Afghan by John Cantlie (top) Still from the game Arma 2 (bottom) Snipers from 2/12 Infantry Division look for insurgents in the Pech valley, Afghanistan (top)
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  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    I agree with 156.rockingfreakapotamus. Are these games are fun? Yes. but realistic enough to cause PTSD? Most definitely not! I've never been in a real combat situation but my father, 22 years service with 2 Para, laughed at the idea of video games like CoD/Arma2 causing any form of stress, let alone the stresses of real life combat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    Are you under the influence of alcohol by any chance? People who can not differentiate between a game and real life must be retarded! No matter how many times I play 'Call of Duty' I never have to question reality. Suffering 'PDST' from gaming will be another excuse for lazy chavs to claim more money for not working.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Why is it always military games that receive the bad press? ARMA 2 is a realistic portrayal of warfare but only, especially with mods, in the visual and audial sense. When I complete a racing game does that mean I don't have to take my driving test?

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Continuing my comment from #153:

    If that happens, then ITV's blunder will be commonplace. My fear for the military is they are getting kids who go play MW3 and then either go and pester veterans about what war is really like, or join assuming war is just a game. Wrong on both counts. To my mindset, glamorizing violence is wrong, making money off of cheap Hollywood allegories of war...wrong

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    IMO, as somebody who has put.a combined 35 hours into Arma 2 and its expansions, my worry is not that people will play it and think that is what war is like (as it does a very believable job of getting across some of the fear and tension in a war), but that with advances in graphics we'll get to a point where to game engines and reality are the same.


Comments 5 of 157


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