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, Picture editor Article written by Phil Coomes Phil Coomes Picture editor

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  • 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.

  • 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 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 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 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


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