Michael Bierut | Essays

First Person Shooter

Photograph by Ashley Gilbertson for The New York Times, 2004

My partner Daniel Weil pointed out an extraordinary picture in the New York Times on Wednesday, the day after U.S.-lead forces began its assault on Fallujah. It all looked oddly familiar: the central figure, frozen in mid-action; the curiously featureless, textured rectangular void; the array of other characters in the background; the sense of portals to other settings, yet unseen. I stared at it blankly for a moment. "It's a video game," he said.

I'm still not used to seeing color photos in the newspaper. The Times publishes superb ones. They simultaneously bring us closer to events and, oddly, distance us from them. Not only are we barraged with images, but those images are ever harder to decipher. Are they real? Are they manipulated? And how do they manipulate us?

In a faraway place, real people are brutally dying. What we understand about these events is inevitably filtered through what else we know; what we see is filtered though what else we've seen. How strange that we've reached a point where reality reminds us of the simulation, rather than the other way around.

Posted in: Media, Photography

Comments [18]

I'm stopping playing CounterStrike over this entry, honestly! I had the same reaction, only that I read your entry after having played CS for about an hours and for 1 second it was like I was back playing... I can name the gun... somewhat sick, right?

I think that America's Army is the worst... a game specifically made to indoctrinate the player with the "values" of American-style warfare/army.

It's back to The Sims for me!
Gabriel Mihalache

Mr. Bierut thank you very much for your entry, it certainly hit home. Interesting enough, in today's New York Times I read an article regarding the Pentagon's plans for something called the Global Information Grid; an internet that would provide imagery from a satellite to marines in combat. What I found most appalling about the description of this "service" was its comparison to Star Wars and its close relationship to "hallucination." I agree with you Mr. Bierut, about how "reality reminds us of the simulation, rather than the other way around," but how will those marines (most of which I assume have played war-like video games) react to a visual image of real-life, real-time war straight to their Humvee? I'm afraid we all know the answer.
Lenny Naar

Haha. I just read the times and pondered upon the surreal quality of the latest images as well and i come here to find it is aalready being discussed. Thank you MB.
My fav image was a soldier having a smoke and taking a break.
the video-game/fantastical aspect to it make it chilling.

I hope these images do put the spotlight on the general public's detachment on war and how it really affects. More and more war has become a spectacle which has lost it social implications for people like ME/US living in the west. I think this trend is dangerous just look at the EASE with people support the war considering 9/11 brought with it just a little taste of what violence can do.

It's sad to think that all that has taught us is to be afraid and adapt the "best defense is offense" mindset and of course, make some more video games.
Aashim Tyagi

I too immediately looked at these images and thought that game designers must be clipping them and carefully studying them for their current projects. I'm sure that countless 'Mission: Iraq' games are in development (of course many already exist), and I can't decide whether this is as innocent as the G.I.'s and German soldiers I played with as a boy or whether it's a new sickness. Maybe we'll only find out the hard way.
Tom Dolan

>My fav image was a soldier having a smoke and taking a break.

This is the second time in three weeks that the Times has featured a smoking soldier on the front page of the paper, in the top fold, no less. Last week the New York Post featured a full page cover photo--in extreme close-up--of a soldier with a lit cigarette dangling from his mouth. They referred to the soldier as a "Marlboro man."

There seems to be quite a lot of both overt and subliminal imagery in all of this.

debbie millman


Why would you stop playing Counterstrike because a picture in the New York Times reminds you of the game? That's probably the stupidest thing I've ever heard. Enjoy playing The Sims, I'll be playing CS:Source on the 15th.

Daniel Weil's got an eye, though, that's for sure. And is probably an avid gamer, although I could be wrong. Seeing an image like Ashley's may conjure 3D-rendered killing fields, but that doesn't mean that I don't know the sort of danger our troops deal with on a day-to-day basis. My heart goes out to them, and if called to duty, I would be there as well... and then I'd be part of the 'simulation'.
Jesse Courtemanche

The first thing that came to mind for me was the game Full Spectrum Warrior, released for the pc and xbox. Sure enough...


The project started its life as a simulator/training tool for the army, then became a commercial game. It seems that the military is also concerned with blending simulation and reality.

Furthermore, I remember in the lead up to the war, cnn delighted in showing 3d spinning computer models of the weaponry, planes and tanks that would be used to fight, rather than photographs or video. This seemed to make things as digital/gamelike as possible, creating even more detachment.
Chris Giampietro

The picture looks like the game and it ends there. I, personally, don't feel 'detached', and I don't necissarily need to be looking at a real-life photograph to feel 'attached' to any significant event.

Computer-generated renders are fine with me. This is, after all, the 21st Century.
Jesse Courtemanche

Your comment about real events being filtered through what we know (i.e. computer simulations and video games) is extremely important in that it goes both directions. Not only do commercial video games like Counter Strike, Full Spectrum Warrior, and America's Army give us civilians a point of reference to the experiences of soldiers in the field, some of these same pieces of software are used to familiarize those soldiers with the situations that might arise.

As for ceasing to play a video game because of its similarity to reality, that doesn't accomplish much one way or the other. If the lack of a disjunct between simulated and real violence disturbs you, perhaps you should write a letter to your senator or congressman rather than just playing the Sims instead. Nevertheless, it's that same lack of disjunct that allows these tools to be so valuable in the preparation and training of today's soldiers.

I find interesting that for most of us, myself included, this lack of disjunct centers primarily on the visual aspect of real and simulated warfare. The eerie similarity between Ashley Gilbertson's image and a screen capture from de_dust is what compells those of us with the video-game as point of reference. However, the visual aspect is far less important to the DARPA and other researchers developing the genuine article for the armed forces. Case in point: the Full Spectrum Warrior game for Xbox and PC is an altered version of an in-use military simulation software, but included with the retail version and its slicked-up graphics, is the genuine version with far less compelling imagery, but vastly improved simulated intelligence.

Another thing this confusion reminds me of was a commercial for Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon 2 (iirc) from about a year or more ago. In the commercial, four young boys are playing the video-game online, communicating via-headset in movie-style soldier-speak. As the commercial commences, their virtual situation goes sour, and they find themselves defeated by their opponents. The boys look confused and ask each other what went wrong before the camera cuts to a desert camp with soldiers high-fiving in front of an Xbox and TV. Ostensibly the commercial was advertising the possibilities of the Xbox Live system, but it was relying very much on the notion that there is very little difference between simulated warfare and real warfare.

The video-gamey-nes of the Times' recent images is both a result of this trend and an agent of it, serving to further blur the line between simulated and real violence.

How strange that we've reached a point where reality reminds us of the simulation, rather than the other way around.

How strange that Mr. Bierut believes we've reached this point recently, does he not recall the picturesque, the movement in landscape design in England in the 18th century when the land was shaped to resemble a painting? Designers of "real" spaces have been borrowing from simulations for centuries. A spectator's reading of these designs has always been intimately connected to their degrees of resemblance with other contemporaneous forms of representation just as war gaming interfaces are now inseparable from more "traditional" forms such as war photojournalism.
Will Temple

Reminds me of the part about the military-entertainment nexus from 'High Tech High Touch.'
Kunal Ghevaria

My first reaction to the photo is, "Why is he shooting at a brick wall?"

Shouldn't we be nodding towards games and acknowledging them for their sense of realism, much like special effects in today's war movies (of course, let me tag the tangent on how many observers noted that 9-11 was "just like a movie" here)? It's impressive to see how video games have grown with their audiences of 30 years ago and to what goals they aspire to to remain relevant.

To be indoctrinated by the "rules" of warfare isn't necessarily a bad thing. Knowledge only garners intelligence, but it's your capability of fantasy/reality disjoint that's the true test of mettle. I'm in the middle of watching "Band of Brothers," and getting accustomed to the vocabulary of warfare, but it doesn't mean I'm going to implement such tactics during spells of road rage.

As far as acknowledging the brutality, what about current taboos? Will we reach a point where much of the simulated gore we see on video games and movies affect us from the experience of seeing the real thing?

I realize this could be bait for a discussion on journalistic integrity (the whole Al Jazeera vs. Western media debate), but let's just stick to the topic of simulated realism.
Vincent Chung

All the reality-reminds-us-of-simulation phenomenon really says is that video game depictions of war maneuvers are more common (and accessible) in our visual culture than actual video / photographic footage of the same. So it makes sense that as "real" footage trickles forth into public consciousness, it reminds viewers of stunnningly accurate game imagery they've seen before.

As for the final observation of this post, I am just guessing that the majority of gamers / consumers probably have not seen enough actual combat that would enable them to feel that a simulation (of war) reminded them of reality.

Perhaps the issue here is that when the reality and simulation relationship manifests visually, it is as striking as the long and continuing realizations of science fiction into science fact: cloning, nanotechnology, test tube genetics, cyberspace are examples of this. Like science fiction, visual simulations prepare (some would say "desensitize") us for reality.

Just my $0.02

To draw directly from excellent and keenly observed science fiction, I think Michael is hedging on some of what Card envisioned with "Ender's Game" and what, to me, was perhaps the most chilling sequence within Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11": the interviewed soldiers describing the thrash metal they listened to while destroying tangible targets - these moments where the aspects of the simulated / fictional / filmic suddenly become realized as actualities (as Card paints them, actualities executed perhaps without personal awareness).

As we refine simulation visually and performatively, certain lines between simulated inaction and actualization start to convolute - games and films particularly rely on the sense that if we've seen something, we've experienced it. We're still left with certain simulated discrepancies as far as smell, tactile sense, and other experiential triggers go within games and films, but it's clear that companies and developers are working at times to fill those gaps and I doubt it's something that won't be attained within the span of my life.

How long is it, however, before we are faced with a "simulation" only to discover that it has either been used merely as a psychological training device or more directly as an intermediary for action itself - a proxy to enable any number of human activities from a "neutral" distance?

We're still a fair distance from the home-based experience of pulling a trigger and knowing that the gun shell we see on a monitor is somewhere about to penetrate flesh, but will we remain agitated by that notion or simply learn to accept it and move on with our lives?

It seems for now that the simulations rely on our desire to experience acts that on one level or another we may not ever hope to personally commit, and we are most certainly viewing our lives and daily realities through the veneers of the simulated.

"Knowledge only garners intelligence"? Not at all. With a FPS game it's not "knowledge" but "experience." Playing, practicing, training, changes the player in a way that watching a movie doesn't.

At least for me, the discomfort lies not with the immediately apparent or the concrete changes--well-honed reflexes, hand-eye coordination, timing, tactical decisionmaking--but with the political and ideological ones: every solution found at the end of a gun? You're soaking in it!

Is recognizing the image the tip of some iceberg?

Modern video war games are carefully worked and reworked to represent a visual depiction of the real thing.
It would be more surprising if one looked at the photo and was reminded of a fishing trip.


I know this is brought back from the dead. This topic reminded me of when I first played Return to Castle Wolfenstein. Within the first few minutes, i was engulfed in the game play. After about my fourth time of playing, I found myself shocked when I thought about the people who fought at Normandy and what they had to go through. I was truly shaken for a couple of minutes at how my mindset turned from a normal state to a "kill kill kill" state. It's pretty scary when you relate it to reality.

As far as war goes, as depicted in that picture, I remember there was an incident in one of the countries newspaper (can't remember which one) that had a soldier pointing a gun at an innocent civilian. It created an anti-war feeling among americans when the picture was displayed. Eventually, the found out someone had photoshopped the soldier and the civilian to make it look like the U.S. Forces were being inhuman. It just shows what type of power people can possess at a few clicks of the mouse buttons.

Lastly, tonight, I saw on the news that some company had created a first person shooter of the JFK assassination where, i believe, the game player, can be the assassin. How disrespectful is that? It's quite disturbing what goes on in the head of these game makers.

After writing all of this, it's going to make me think twice of letting my future kids play FPS games.

Lester Dela Cruz

The original entry, and much of the subsequent discussion, strike me as an example of attributional bias. The simple -- and rather obvious -- fact of the matter is that people have always filtered new information about unfamiliar experiences through knowledge of their own familiar experiences. This is a fundamental aspect of human cognition, and a large part of how we learn and understand the world.

If anything, the fact that these images from Iraq remind us of video game screen shots instead of war movies is a testament to the growing popularity of video games as a form of entertainment. By contrast, 9/11 reminded people of a movie because there have been many disaster movies made but very few disaster video games. Movies were the natural point of reference for millions of people who had never been through a major disaster themselves.
Adam M.

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