Virtual War

Friday, April 09, 2010


This week a leaked video of a U.S. military attack in Iraq that killed 12 civilians, including two Reuters journalists, generated much debate in the media. But most agreed on one thing: the footage looked like a video game. Technology writer Clive Thompson discusses what this means.

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Comments [18]

Sarah from Montreal, Canada

Also, Clive Thompson is great but he speaks way too fast!

Apr. 28 2010 01:34 PM
Sarah from Montreal, Canada

My first reaction after seeing the video on Wikileak was that I would never ever be able to play Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 again. I had to place my head between my knees to relax myself, I felt sick. Not only at what happened in the video, but more about my total guilt. I felt disgusted at myself, having played more than 40 hours of MW2. My parents and sisters always asked me 'Why do you play that game and take pleasure in killing people?'. I never really knew. But now, I just can't. I can't play without even thinking about those two children in the van, the journalists carrying cameras, the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

Apr. 28 2010 01:34 PM
jccalhoun from bloomington, in

EILEEN LUNDBERG is referring to Craig Anderson and while I think Anderson's heart is in the right place he hasn't come across anything that doesn't cause "aggression." I've read several of his studies and I've yet to find him even define what he means by "aggression." The closest I've read him come to defining it was a graph in one paper which listed "raising your voice." Call me crazy but I think yelling at someone is very different than killing someone.

Potomacker asks why the military would spend money on videogames if it wasn't to desensitize people. From what I've read the military uses videogames to train soldiers in teamwork and when not to shoot people rather than desensitizing them. The games America's Army was developed as a recruitment tool and it required players to go through a great deal of "training" missions before you could go and play against other people.

Apr. 19 2010 11:51 AM

Others have covered some of my points, so I'll leave only one comment on word choice: Brooke said the dreaded "is is." I keep hearing this double "is" in interviews, but this is the first that I've heard a host say it: "...And a lot of people say that the problem is, is that killing in real life..." No reason for the second "is." Why is this becoming more popular?

Apr. 19 2010 10:32 AM
Dinesh from Chicago, IL

I agree with several posters above, in that this piece missed the real story. While the casualness in which the soldiers regard their killing is of note, I feel that OTM's duty was to also report the mainstream media's response or lack thereof to this news.

This would have been a perfect opportunity to talk about current biases and problems in war journalism in Iraq and Afghanistan, and could have been intriguingly juxtaposed with Jerome Starkey's reporting from Afghanistan about women killed by NATO forces and the subsequent coverup, only recently revealed by the government.

I am normally a huge fan of the show, but I feel that this story missed the mark severely.

Apr. 14 2010 02:23 PM
Tim L from Denver

By the comments left on your website, the story of how remote weaponry is used in modern combat and the video itself seems to have surprised and shocked a number of listeners.

That military uses distance to desensitize should come as a surprise only to the uniformed who have not heard the anecdotal stories of the bomber pilots of World War II and on.

That collective ignorance is not your fault, however your story seemed to me could lead listeners to think that the military might have used the Call of Duty 'Death from Above' level as some sort of inspiration. (In fact videos like this can be seen on sites such as Live Leak.)

The reason the game and the video under discussion look so similar is because the game designers undoubtedly had seen examples of this kind of footage and based the POV in the game level on those videos, as opposed to the military rapidly developing a load of remote weapons based on a 2007 video game UI.

Apr. 13 2010 10:03 PM
Tom Moore from Harriman, TN

The Virtual War piece you aired Sunday omitted the story: real life slaughter. Also, a mention could have been made to the massacre's cover-up by the military, Congress, and the Obama administration. When the video and audio surfaced I thought that, at last, the MSM would be forced to confront the many untold horrors perpetrated by certain government officials in our name. Yes, the story and its controversy did get some airtime. But real, aggressive news coverage of this atrocity and others like it, still, according to NPR, don't merit further scrutiny.

Your emphasis on the overtold video game-like nature of the weapons of modern warfare was simply shameful.

And that NPR broadcast this piece on a program entitled On the Media is a sad commentary.

Apr. 12 2010 12:30 PM
Sebastian Helm from Redmond, WA

That was an example for a bad interview! The reporter let the interviewee hold monologues for minutes on end, only encouraging him with an occasional small talk remark. None of the interviewee's opinionated statements were questioned, not even the unfounded claim that there is no relation between violence and video games. If she had done even the most basic homework, she would have known about the connections between the Columbine High School massacre with video games. (See e.g. the section on DOOM at

Apr. 11 2010 10:02 PM

These pilots are in Apaches, they are pretty much well and truly in the warzone,
this is not an example of virtualisation. UAVs and UUVs would be an example of that.
The pilots in the video are trained to operate a warship, and not just some average joe can operate one of these.
not to mention that we as civilians have no place to criticise the actions of soldiers doing their JOBS in the battlefield.
These soliders were protecting their brethren, and from the footage you can see that there were weapons involved and that there was a potential threat (RPGs)
their attitudes is something that we as civilians can not comment on, as none of us have endured the stresses of a warzone.
How they keep their sanity and their humanity is their option.
Maybe the question we should be asking is why are they over there fighting that war in the first place?

Apr. 11 2010 08:32 PM
John V. Walsh from Cambridge, MA

Shame on you for your treatment of this video. I found that this piece trivialized the story by discussing it in terms of video games. How about perspective? The war on Iraq, Bush's and now Obama's, is a war based on lies. There was no Al Qaeda connection and there were no WMD's - and those in power knew it. Thus it was and is a war of aggression and hence the greatest crime against humanity according to Nuremberg. Next we have high tech soldiers killing from the sky with no warning to those below. This is not battle. This is shooting fish in a barrel. The crime is therefore compounded. One need only look at the video to see it is cold blooded murder. I urge one and all to go to and see for yourself. Listen to the comments of the soldiers. And by the way it is not the guys in the helicopter gunship who made the decisions but the higher level guy (CIA or "Intelligence" or higher officer) who can see what the guys in the copter can see on camera and gives the go ahead. Hence it is war crime reaching up the chain of command.
Moreover, this is not simply an isolated case. This kind of thing is going on day in and day out in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan - and perhaps in Iran.
And why is all this kept secret from us? Why should all such videos not be made public? An enormous amount of these criminal wars are captured on video but we see nothing. We talk about censorship in places like China but this is a massive censorship. We cannot look for these videos on the internet because they never get there. Why does On The Media not take up this profound censorship?
Finally how would you like it if Iraqis were doing the same to us in our streets?
John V. Walsh
P.S. The comment about the editing of the video above is not true. The full 39 minute video as well as the 17 minute edited version are both available.

Apr. 11 2010 02:57 PM
michelle murray from new york

This is a very disturbing development as killing people becomes even more virtual and detached .The shocking thing about the film was also the commentary by the soldiers.
This all is in the context you must remember of an unjust war where America decided to go to war for a reason we still do not know and kill people that even it can't determine whether they are enemy or friend.

Apr. 11 2010 01:25 PM
Julian Karhumaa from Pennsylvania

Isn't the the broader issue the circumstances under which we as a society enter a state of war. Since we have in a sense created killing machines out of our soldiers, it is incumbent upon us as a nation to be extremely reluctant to use our military.

Apr. 11 2010 11:29 AM
Jay Tea from

The Wikileaks video has been definitely debunked. The creators of the video took the original footage, edited it down to reflect their agenda, sped it up and slowed it down as they saw fit, and added misleading annotations.

Details they didn't bother to include:

There was intense fighting going on very near.

There were numerous weapons -- including an RPG and spare rounds -- found at the scene.

The "rescue" vehicle had no markings, and it (or one very like it) had been seen dropping off combatants at the fight.

The children were taken to and treated at a US military base before being transferred to an Iraqi hospital.

I could go on, but this site has a character limit on comments.


Apr. 11 2010 11:02 AM
S Block

Training simulators and high tech weapons systems and virtual reality games, all use available technology to virtualize reality. Yawn. There is no story here. So OTM switches to it's scary-headline style "THEY are turning war into a game!" to propagandize us.

Then, the flip side "Are games dangerous?" is superficially examined but in a way that never suggests that war should be let off the hook. Games are let off the hook by precisely not examining what effect they might have on e.g. psychopaths, which could be critically important. "You'd have to be pretty unhinged...." Yes, that's the point nitwits.

The helicopter video is interesting, this story was not.

Apr. 11 2010 10:48 AM
Potomacker from Nanjing, PRC

The OTM hostess describes the released video in question (albeit a partial description of the many deaths) as of US soldiers who mistook a camera carried by a Reuters journalist for a weapon. She then mention that the release of the video has prompted debate as to whether the shooting of unarmed pedestrians was a mistake. Did she really mean to weigh in so deliberately on her position in this debate with such a choice of words?
I also agree with the above commenter. There are certainly those who agree that video gaming that depict violence desensitize one to such violence in the real world. If this were not so, why would the US military invest so much time and money into developing and using such games? At a minimum, another panelist would have offered a more rounded discussion.

Apr. 11 2010 01:12 AM
yh from usa

Hi Eileen, you might be referring to this researcher and ISU study, which is about how these games reinforce and develop violence in youth:

it dovetails into what Clive Thompson talks about in the show.

Apr. 10 2010 02:10 PM

I had a real problem with the casualness of this person and his information. I was shocked you had no balance to his opinions. I listen to your program weekly and have developed a trust you do your homework. I know you encourage to question but your questions were not enough.

Perhaps I am wrong but I have listened to IPR and a professor/researcher from Iowa State University who researches the effect of these video games on people who play them. It is research done over a long period of time. He would not have agreed.
I am sitting here at 6:30 in the morning doing income tax returns, I am an accountant. I do not have time to look it up but I know you are probably capable. The research group, I believe even release reports ?annually? I have downloaded before. Do not have time to find myself.

Apr. 10 2010 07:36 AM
Charles Vallee from Milford MI USA

Excellent program as always. The key question is that the virtualization of warfare is a parallel process. The effect is that the game developers are busy making their warfare porn as real as possible, whilst the drone operators are using the same interface that they first encountered playing Street Frghter Two in High School. No wonder Call of Duty is so popular amongst members of the Marine Corps. It's where they feel most at home.

Apr. 10 2010 07:31 AM

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