‘Watson is down,’ a few young American military recruits call out laconically after one of their fellow soldiers, a gunner on an armoured truck, is killed. On patrol in Afghanistan with three other marines they are ambushed by insurgents. ‘Game over,’ you might say, since the event was only a simulated exercise. Serious Games, the four-part film (2009–10) by Harun Farocki that documents this simulation and the loss of Watson, is shown as a video installation at Hamburger Bahnhof, where the four sections are projected onto separate screens in a large dark room.
Farocki filmed this war game on a US marine base in California in 2009. One half of the screen shows the four marines in a classroom, participating in the exercise from behind their laptops. The other half shows the computerized landscape they move through: a fairly true-to-life recreation of actual circumstances in Afghanistan. Even the cloud of dust kicked up by the virtual vehicle grows or contracts depending on the conditions. Farocki adds his own commentary to the video: ‘more vegetation means less dust. And no dust at all on the paved streets. All these faithful details make death in the computer game something other than the real thing.’
Farocki, a Berlin-based documentary filmmaker and film essayist, uses film as a sort of pedagogical instrument. Maybe that’s why his numerous works, from the 1960s onward, are by now more likely to be shown in a museum than in a cinema or on television. They would make just as much sense in those contexts, but the expectations of mainstream film and TV now usually exclude work like Farocki’s. In Serious Games, the filmmaker explores the relationship between actual reality and its simulated, or virtual, counterpart. While militaries have probably always simulated various emergency situations to prepare for war, those exercises used to take place in a sandbox, not at a computer.
In the war game that Farocki documents, the technology of virtual reality (VR) plays a part not only before a tour of duty, but after it as well. ‘Immersion,’ one chapter of his film, reveals as much. In the context of VR, the term immersion means an all-encompassing simulation. Farocki filmed a workshop in Seattle where a patient traumatized by his tour in Iraq puts on data glasses to relive his terrible experiences, this time with a therapist at his side. The patient, who looks to be perpetually on the verge of a breakdown in the video, had seen one of his fellow soldiers blown up during a patrol; only his legs were left intact. With the data glasses, the surviving soldier plunges into a Middle Eastern city and a desert road. The therapist programmes the incidents: assassination attempts, roadside bombs.
But ‘in reality,’ the simulation and the difficult process of coming to terms with the horrors of war take on the appearance of an entirely different sort of role-play in Farocki’s film. The therapeutic scenario is itself a sort of performance, contrived to promote VR technology as a treatment tool for post-traumatic stress disorder. Farocki notes: ‘even if the reason that the therapist is so convincing in his role is that he’s trying to sell something, the scene still can’t just be some little game.’ No, it’s actually a very ‘serious game’, and not just because it involves the psychological damage of war. The credibility of the ‘merely’ performed scene derives from the fact that the traumas it recreates mirror the actual experiences of veterans.
Farocki uses images to explain images, sometimes also with commentaries, but he does so without classical montages. His films succeed in triggering certain fundamental realizations among viewers by presenting two perspectives simultaneously, which is to say: he compares. The comparison is Farocki’s preferred instrument in explaining images and what motivates those who produced the images in the first place. In Serious Games, this means watching the soldiers play at war on the one side of the screen, and their first-person perspective within the virtual reality on the other. Now it becomes clear: VR and reality are two different worlds. Simulated death has no relevance to reality, or if it does, then only insofar as it helps soldiers avoid actual death in combat or during their tours of duty.
Incidentally, the American military cannot or will not entirely give up on simulated exercises outside, in the sand. Farocki makes this clear in one section of his film. He was able to visit a tactical training ground in the Mojave Desert in California built with shipping containers made to resemble the buildings of a city in the Middle East. 300 extras work in the fake city, taking on alternating roles as Afghans and Iraqis. There are simulated attacks and suicide bombers here as well. But there’s a human factor to the exercises too, and the ‘tiny spark of the accidental, the here and now,’ in which Walter Benjamin once saw the reality at work behind photographed images.
Translated by Jesse Coburn