War or gaming fun? Spot the difference

Phil Coomes
Picture editor

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image captionWhich 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.

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image captionCompare 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.

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image captionA 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.

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image captionUS soldiers of 1ID during IED clearing operation in Ramadi, Iraq (top)
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image captionIraqi militia wait for orders to advance through a city block in the Ta'meem district of Ramadi, Iraq (top)
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image captionSnipers from 2/12 Infantry Division look for insurgents in the Pech valley, Afghanistan (top)