Drones hovering overhead; red-faced troops cowering in tanks; your father walking with a tube up his nose to protect him from snipers. Unthinkable scenes of resistance in WWII movies are now as close as your local video game.
A new generation has grown up with the atrocities of war, played through video games that shape their opinions about the nature of conflict, and seen our armed forces morphed into an instrument of war in modern times.
David Hackney, a professor in international security studies at King’s College London, is leading a global study into the effects of online games on the minds of combatants and civilians. On Sunday, in Dushanbe, capital of the former Soviet Central Asian state of Tajikistan, he will be unveiling a book called “Damage Unlimited”, a new collaboration between the INMX/CAM study and World War II scholar John Lewis Gaddis.
Dr Gaddis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning history The Long Way Home documented the effects of movies such as Saving Private Ryan on the soldiers who fought in Europe in World War II.
Now Dr Gaddis says this new generation of young men is leading a second wave of propaganda warfare.
“What we are most concerned about is the effect on the soldiers who go into what appears to be a mainly benign experience and then they are stopped by the more insidious realities of war,” he said.
“Some of the imagery they are seeing is breathtaking. It offers some of the great pleasure of war in modern life.”
The effects of civilian devastation during the Balkan wars also attracted media attention, but today children go to war combat experiences through video games, says Professor Hackney.
He says virtual reality headsets are an attractive alternative to watching images on television.
“If you have a virtual reality headset, the games require you to actually see things that are in front of you as you are walking around in the virtual world,” said Professor Hackney.
The virtual reality headsets can boost the visual effects of games, masking the destructiveness of war, according to Dr Gaddis.
“There is always a question of whether the psychology impacts on the experiences of the soldier,” he said.
“For example, if you are immersed in a virtual world, there’s a sense that you aren’t really that far away from things that you see,” he added.
“So, for example, you will remember shots that you imagine that you shot, but you will actually not remember the precise one. So the effect of this is that you’re somewhat detached from what you’re actually doing.”
And yet the same technology is allowing gamers to experience the horrors of war.
At Colchester University’s Combined Military Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience, the researchers are investigating how simulation can alter an individual’s perception of reality.
“The other important thing is because the game is virtual, it helps to draw out that relevant experience and give a deeper understanding of what actually takes place, rather than just seeing or hearing or moving around,” said Dr Judith Portier-Mason, a member of the team.
“By making use of video games and immersion techniques we are being able to explore not only what happens on the battlefield, but also what happens through training and how to prepare for that for the next time.”
Professor Hackney says the research offers a valuable lesson to young men who serve in conflict zones around the world.
“It’s important that we find out what is actually going on before we actually do something in a particularly provocative way. It helps us to stop ourselves from going down these very dangerous and destructive paths,” he said.