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Are war games more realistic than war movies?

Are war games more realistic than war movies?


“The behaviour of the pilots is like they’re playing a video game… their desire was to get high scores on that computer game.”

These are comments made by Julian Assange – a journalist, activist and representative of WikiLeaks.org, a ‘whistleblower’ website dedicated to facilitating anonymous submissions of sensitive and ‘secret’ materials – regarding a leaked video depicting two U.S. Army Apache helicopters firing upon and killing a group of Iraqi civilians.

When I first read about this video, I made a point of not watching it, but looking a little deeper into the story it became clear that it was open to a variety of interpretations and I decide that if I were to make my own determination, I would need to watch it myself. So I did.

Well, while I would agree that the soldiers are behaving and talking much as if they’re playing a video game, I don’t think they’re shooting for a high score. I think they’re shooting because if they see people who might be armed and hostile in the vicinity of their comrades on the ground and they don’t shoot, then they’re not doing their job. Yes, they’re cold and callous, but guess what, there isn’t an army in the world that wants a guy who hesitates to pull the trigger among its ranks. That’s the way they’re trained, and we shouldn’t be surprised that mistakes like this happen in war, and that this is how they happen.

So why do so many people seem so surprised? Maybe they’ve seen too many sentimental war movies in which the loss of innocent life is always the fault of an incompetent leader or a bad egg within the unit and could have been prevented if only someone had listened to the hero just once. That’s how it tends to be in the movies, but that’s not the reality.

It’s tempting then to argue that the Modern Warfare games do a better job of portraying the reality of, well… modern warfare, and in one respect they certainly do. The real-life Apache helicopter footage is deeply reminiscent of the Death From Above level from Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, in which you play as an AC-130 gunner providing air cover for a friendly unit on the ground. The calm, matter-of –fact tone of dialogue is almost exactly the same. The Modern Warfare soldiers perhaps aren’t quite as callous as their real-life counterparts, but they do have lines like, “Hehe, this is going to be one helluva highlight reel.” The only major difference is that the real soldiers are shooting civilians, but they don’t know that. That’s the worst thing about insurgency – enemies are very hard to identify.

Modern Warfare 2 attempts to highlight and recreate this difficulty in the level Takedown, where you have to fight your way through a favela where both enemies and innocents are dressed in civilian clothes. But here realism has its limits, and the differences between game and reality become stark. Distinguishing between militia and civilians is a relatively simple task when the two groups have different sets of character models with different sets of animations, and when the penalty for making a mistake either way is the same – starting again. In reality the penalty for not shooting a hostile could well be a permanent game over for you or one or more of your companions, whereas if you shoot an innocent in error, you just carry on. Imagine those rules applied to the game – there wouldn’t be a single civilian left standing by the end of the level.

So, are war games more realistic than war movies? In some ways, perhaps yes. In others, probably not. But generally, I’m not going to pretend I know. It seems to me that both movies and games fall way, way short of portraying war as it really is, and this is something we all need to bear in mind. We need to bear it in mind before we accept our leaders’ decisions to send our troops to war. And we need to bear it in mind before we condemn our troops for the manner in which they go about doing their jobs.

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