Is it possible to prepare for deployment to a war zone by playing a video game?

An Australian journalism lecturer, Tony Maniaty, thinks it could be.

The former ABC foreign correspondent was first struck by the possibility of using video games as a training tool while watching his sons playing a first-person shooter.

"They came to a point in the game where they reached a roadblock," he recalls.

"I thought it looked like journalism - you're in a situation you've got to talk your way through. The environments seemed very similar.

"I had the idea of replacing a gun with a video camera but I thought it must have already been done. I found that it hadn't and I was quite staggered."  

Maniaty has teamed up with a film director and games designer to produce a "proof of concept" prototype. Funded by Aus$250,000 (£155,000) from Screen Australia and Screen New South Wales, they have created "Warco".

The title comes from the nickname given to correspondents covering the Second World War.

The game, set in a fictional African country, introduces some of the hazards journalists may face in real-life war zones - snipers, improvised explosive devices, ambushes, kidnapping, illness and hostile crowds.

I met Maniaty during a tour of the US and Britain where he has been showing the game to major news organisations including the BBC. He explained that he is seeking to develop two versions of the game: one aimed at the retail market and the other at entry-level journalists and freelancers who are unable to afford a full hostile environment course, which can cost more than £2,000.

Advances in digital technology mean that anyone with relatively cheap off-the-shelf equipment can travel to a war zone and set up as a freelance foreign correspondent.

Over the years, many star careers have been made by young and eager journalists taking their chances overseas. Maniaty is concerned, however, that, as the barriers to entry into the profession become lower and news budgets become tighter, safety is becoming a secondary concern.

"They're all itching to get overseas," Maniaty says of the journalism students he teaches at the University of Technology, Sydney.

"They know how to use a camera and how to use a laptop; they basically know how to do all the things a journalist does for a living before they leave the building.

"The number of graduates coming out of media courses and journalism schools is booming and there aren't jobs for all of them.

"Students have the idea that they can accelerate their careers by getting on a plane and going to Kabul or Mogadishu and having a go."

Unlike a video game, however, the dangers facing journalists working in real-life war zones are all too real.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, almost 900 people working in the media industry have been killed in the line of duty since 1992.

The idea of using a video game to train would-be correspondents troubles some journalists.

"My worry is that it dehumanises a war zone," says Allan Little, one of the BBC's most experienced foreign correspondents:

"I don't like the close association between a video game and real-life wars.

"I think anything that encourages the view that you can understand real-life shooting wars better by playing a game has to be treated with caution." 

James Rodgers, Senior Lecturer in International Journalism at London Metropolitan University, is also uneasy at the prospect of using a game to train students. 

"When I'm teaching conflict journalism, I do draw my students' attention to the large number of casualties," says Rodgers, who is finishing a book on conflict reporting.

"I think this game does suggest some of the dangers you might find in a war zone, but my concern is that it could glamorise them and that's not a good thing.

"I can see how something like this game could potentially be a useful training aid for a generation that's very comfortable with video games, but I think it really needs to avoid glamorising the profession, because people really do get killed."

Despite the reservations expressed by some in the news industry, Maniaty insists the response so far has been largely positive - and denies that "Warco" represents hostile environment training "on the cheap".

"Some people have said 'this is kids' stuff' or 'why should we play a video game to train journalists', but for the past ten or 15 years the military and the police have been doing this," he says.

"I think the media's the last place where it hasn't been introduced as a concept.

Maniaty adds: "I would never say this game should replace proper hostile environment training but if we can save the lives of a few journalists it'll be worth it."

Stuart Hughes is a BBC World Affairs producer.

A version of this article first appeared on the BBC News website.

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