Video game to aid war journalists
- 4 October 2011
- From the section Technology
When Tony Maniaty was sent to cover the 1975 civil war in East Timor as a young foreign correspondent, he was more concerned with impressing his editors than training for deployment to a hostile environment.
More than 35 years later, Maniaty sees the same eagerness twinned with inexperience in the next generation of foreign correspondents he now teaches at the University of Technology, Sydney.
"They're all itching to get overseas," he says.
But he questioned if they had enough training in how to cope in war zones.
"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.
"A couple of students even left my postgraduate course - one went to Africa, the other to Sri Lanka - with no training at all."
It was the experience of watching his two sons playing the first-person shooter Far Cry 2 that first gave Maniaty the idea of using a video game to prepare novice journalists who are likely to work in a war zone.
"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."
Tony Maniaty teamed up with the filmmaker Robert Connolly and games designer Morgan Jaffit to produce a "proof of concept" prototype.
Funded by AUS$250,000 (£155,000) from Screen Australia and Screen New South Wales they created "Warco." The title comes from the nickname given to correspondents covering the Second World War.
The team is now seeking funding to develop two versions of the game.
A retail version would be aimed at older gamers looking for a new challenge and those who are turned off by the violence of some first-person shooters.
A training variant, meanwhile, would be targeted at journalism students, freelancers, and those unable to afford the high cost of the hostile environment training courses offered to staff at large news organisations.
The game, set in the fictional, poverty-stricken African country of Benouja, introduces some of the hazards journalists may face in real-life war zones, such as snipers, improvised explosive devices, ambushes, kidnapping, illness and hostile crowds.
Unlike a video game, however, the dangers facing journalists working in real-life war zones are very 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.
"War zones are not about situations, they're about individuals, they're about human beings.
"The key to understanding a war is to understand individuals who are living through it - and there aren't really any individuals in this game.
"I don't like the close association between a video game and real-life war.
"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, and a former foreign correspondent himself, is also uneasy at the prospect of using a game to train his students.
"When I'm teaching conflict journalism I do draw my students' attention to the large number of casualties," he says.
"Over the last 20 years, since the Bosnian war, journalists have been seen as more legitimate targets than they were before and they're no longer seen as deserving of special protection.
"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, Tony Maniaty insists the response so far has been largely positive.
"Some people have said 'this is kids' stuff' or 'why should we play a video game to train journalists' but for the last 10 or 15 years the military and the police have been doing this," he says.
"Surgeons have been training how to do operations with video games and interactive games are even being used to treat soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It's very common.
"I think the media's the last place where it hasn't been introduced as a concept.
"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."