'A Harvest of Death' questions the blurred line between games and reality

A soldier lies face-down in the grass. In the distance flowers and trees stand motionless, the air is still, the scene is quiet. The only sign that destruction has torn through the region is the lifeless body of the soldier on the ground that almost seems out of the place in the serene environment. It's a ghost of a war-zone.

The Harvest of Death is a photo series taken by photographer Karl Burke while he was inside a video game. Venturing into the world of ‘Project Reality', a modified version of the first-person shooter Battlefield 2, Burke tied his interest in collodion photography of the mid-19th century – the method of photo processing used by early war photographers like Mathew Brady, Timothy O'Sullivan and Alexander Gardner – his experience with first-person shooters, and his interest in the military's move towards drone strikes and virtual warfare.

The result is a haunting photo series with a ghostly aesthetic. These are the images from the games we play. These are the soldiers we leave behind after we fire our weapons and set off our grenades. We've never seen our destruction presented like this before, though. It's eerie. It's not quite real.

"What I see is there is a bit of an overlap now between the sort of imagery you would see when you're playing a lot of these games on your computer screen and the sort of imagery a drone controller would see on their computer screens as well," Burke tells Polygon.

"What people are doing for leisure and what other people sitting in front of identical computer screens are doing for defence warfare purposes."

"Increasingly the games are mirroring what these people are seeing when they're flying drones, except obviously those are real deaths that are occurring. So I'm just wondering what the end result of all this is going to be, particularly as first-person shooters get more and more immersive.

"We're now having this convergence between what people are doing for leisure and what other people sitting in front of identical computer screens are doing for defence warfare purposes ... what does this mean? I don't know. I don't have the answers to all this."

Burke isn't setting out to condemn first-person shooters, and he has no intention of sparking a moral panic. He wants A Harvest of Death, which takes it name from a July 1863 Timothy O'Sullivan photo, to spark a discussion and to ask the kind of questions that might be uncomfortable for gamers, game makers, and anyone who has experienced war as entertainment. Through the lens of his virtual camera he sees similarities between the games of war and the virtual wars that are being fought through remotely-controlled drones, and he believes it's worth pausing to reflect on where the two are going.

Burke says that as war changes, as it moves away from traditional forms of fighting on the battlefield and shifts towards drone warfare, the sense of detachment we experience from what's happening in-game is becoming more and more similar to the real thing. As the lines begin to blur, Burke wonders where it will lead, if anywhere at all.

"This is not reality, this is not real, but for some people sitting in front of computer screens controlling drones, it is real."

"The common comment made is that war doesn't actually look like this and there are body parts everywhere and it's a big mess, and that's actually part of my point," Burke says. "This is not reality, this is not real, but for some people sitting in front of computer screens controlling drones, it is real.

"Which is the real one and which is the unreal one? You may say that's a bit of a trite point because I know I'm playing a game and the other person is in the air force, but how people react when they are separated from what's going on is obviously not quite the same thing as when you're up close and personal with someone and you have to kill them with a knife or rifle.

"It's a lot easier to click the mouse button and kill someone on the other side of the world, and that is actually my point: that this is not ultimately real. This is not the true representation of the chaos and destruction of war. That's the whole point. You have to be there in reality to see that the truth about war is destruction and death. That's the essence of what it's all about and you will never get that looking at a computer screen."

Burke hopes that by capturing these images from video games – images that carry similarities to what a drone fighter might see while on the job – he can draw attention to how potentially dangerous it is that war is heading in a direction that allows a soldier to be increasingly detached from what is happening out on the field.

Occasionally, the fighting would get close to where Burke was taking photos and his character would get killed.

Burke already had an idea of the kinds of shots he was after when he entered the game. Not wanting to interfere with anyone else's game, he waited until other players ran off into the distance before finding an in-game Jeep and driving around to look for scenes, much like he would in real life (Burke is not a war photographer). Taking a photo required him to take a screenshot, but as most first-person games tend to have a lot of items on the interface and the player is usually holding something in front of them, Burke chose a mode of the game with as few on-screen overlays as possible. He then figured out if his character switched from holding a hand grenade to a knife, for an instant the screen would be free of any hands. Burke would then wait for everyone in the game to be quiet so that chat messages would disappear before taking his screenshot.

Occasionally, the fighting would get close to where Burke was taking photos and his character would get killed. He says it was disorienting being in a game for a non-gaming purpose. He often forgot that he could be killed if the fighting got too close to him.

The screengrabs were then processed and abstracted so that they would echo the photography from the American Civil War and the Crimean War.

"With these sorts of games, it's all adrenaline rush, rush, rush, constant action, and you don't really think about what's being represented," Burke says. "In one sense I was trying to, by abstracting it a bit, I was trying to penetrate a bit further into what was being represented."

"Ultimately, I think that we should be careful of bringing warfare into the entertainment arena. I think we should always remember that the reality of this stuff is just the worst thing in the world you could see. We should just be cautious.

"Again, I don't know where it's all going, but we should certainly think about it."

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