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)
Phil Coomes Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

Halfway point in 24-year photo project

Twenty-four photographers recording the first 24 hours of each year reach the halfway point of their 24-year-long project.

Read full article

More on This Story


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    With technology advancements I'm sure they will be able to simulate death at some point, unconscious blackout?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I don't see these games creating PTSD although I could imagine them reminding a real war veteran of real experiences.

    Games are fun by design. Simulated war, but without mortal fear, stress, deprivation, pain, loss of life; no moral choices, guilt or consequences.

    Surely the worry should be that these mechanisms, necessary to teach us war is not glamorous and fun, can never be present in games.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Infantry simulation is top notch in Arma II, though BIS has a ways to go with vehicle simulation. The technology is getting better, ten more years and before you know it, it'll actually feel like you're right there. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    We've come a long way in a short time...I remember the days of 8 bit graphics - and being in awe when going to the arcade... now of course, we can experience these sorts of gaming experiences at home - and people expect this to be the norm! Little do they know how far we've already come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.


    I will agree that lighting in games is very good, but there are some spots where it just doesn't behave the same way as it does in real life, particularly shadows. That's what gave away the picture at the top.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Actually I think game lighting can be spot on. Particles (and particle count), fire, smoke, water and of course texture quality (although this is more of a game-size constraint than an actual game fault) is where there are bigger pitfalls.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I'm a veteran, these games look fun! If you find this offensive you obviously aren't military material and have no idea what it's like being shot at in a Taliban ambush.
    I actually went out and bought one of those "Gaming PC's", hooked it up and had a heck of alot of fun playing "Battlefield 3", enjoyed watching micro-movies of that game "arma 2" which looks too complicated for me though!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Just taken a break from playing Arma2 and found this story!
    I notice that when doing things like virtual driving on a virtual dusty road for a moment I can feel and smell the dust I think in the future this fooling of the brain will become a lot more sophisticated! and people will find themselves slipping into full blown waking dream states, enter the Matrix!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The faux soldiers look better equipped!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    What an utterly stupid and insulting article, both to its readers, who are presumably assumed to be complete imbeciles, and to PTSD sufferers. PTSD is a bit more than a sweaty hand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The flat hats worn by the "Iraqi militia" are in reality worn only by Afghans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The problem we have is not that gamers can't tell the difference between games and reality. The problem is that *other people* can't tell the difference, because they don't play games (and some of them clearly don't have lives, either). And these are always the people trying to introduce a new law, or a new safeguard, or a new protection...

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    games are NOTHING what real warfare throws at you....end of.
    But it reminded me of bloody day in Libya 2011.
    I was alongside a rebel battalion (?)Gaddafi's forces stopped the rebel advance dead, by the time it got dark.(thats not a lot btw!)
    all of it had been eerily similar to that hour-long session of digitised warfare on my comp. i doubt that. if he wants to swap war stories i am willing to

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    We are in the age of ultra reality. We had better get used to it. Soon we won't know fact from fiction. It's like 1984.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Anyone who plays video games on games on a regular basis should be able to tell the difference between The pictures this guy took and in-game graphics. There are many, many things in games that don't match real life, such as lighting, textures(the big giveaway in the examples above), and segmentation of circles.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    ARMA 2 is an excellent game and very enjoyable with a group of mates online. Not only is it one of the most realistic shooters going, it's perhaps the most realistic to play and along with its predecessors (operation flashpoint and arma 1) it has been used in military training - such is its accurate portrayal of modern warfare.

    The sheer scale of the real-time in-game world is also immense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Excellent game, Arma 2. BIS is one of the great game developers but they dont get the credit or success they deserve. The Arma series does well enough but it isnt the the same league of popularity as the awful Modern Warfare and its clones.


Page 8 of 8



Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.