Virtual battlegrounds:
the multiple realisms of
Harun Farocki’s Immersion

by Daniel Grinberg

“I can’t do this anymore,” a distressed man named Kevin states in Harun Farocki’s Immersion.[1] [open notes in new window] The third installment in the late German director’s 2009 Serious Games series, the twenty-minute documentary displays Kevin on half of the screen, while the other half of the screen depicts his first-person perspective. As his digital counterpart navigates a simulacrum of an Iraqi village, he grows more unsettled. “I can’t… I can’t,” he tells Barbara, the therapist guiding him through the experience. However, at her insistence, he continues to describe witnessing the death of a soldier named Jones in the second Iraq War. He says,

“I’m freaking out and, uh, and so there’s more gunfire and it’s come in closer and I’m like, ‘this is it, this is seriously it. I’ve only been here for three weeks and I’m seriously going to be like paste, like Jones.’”

Kevin telling the traumatic story of Jones through Virtual Iraq

Although this sequence appears to archive a veteran experiencing a harrowing instance of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the applause that concludes this session of virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) abruptly reconfigures the documentary viewers’ conception of reality. The applause and the participants’ subsequent conversation about their roles reveal that Immersion has not been documenting an actual VRET session. Instead, as the closing credits finally make clear, it has documented a performance of a session that demonstrates the uses of the Virtual Iraq technology for an audience of military psychologists.

In the following article, I will contextualize the development of Virtual Iraq and the political and aesthetic dimensions of Harun Farocki’s oeuvre. Subsequently, I will consider how the jarring re-formation of the profilmic reality underscores a multitude of interrelated forms of realism within the film. This includes the phenomenological realism of Kevin’s physiological responses, the simulated realism of the virtual reality technology, and the realism associated with the documentary genre. Ultimately, I contend that Farocki is concurrently drawing upon all these theoretical frameworks of realism to evoke an overarching Brechtian realism rooted in Marxist ideology and radical defamiliarization. In this light, the project’s objective then is not only to document war trauma, but also reflexively to provoke viewers to question the state and complicit mainstream media apparatuses that construct false realities and manufacture wars.

Fittingly, Bertolt Brecht has argued,

“Realism is not a mere question of form. Were we to copy the style of [established] realists, we would no longer be realists. … Methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must change.”[2]

By elucidating the facets of these generative methods and modes within Immersion, I will explore how their concatenations establish an engaged realism for viewers and trenchantly condemn the Second Iraq War and the overreach of the U.S. military-industrial complex.

Contextualizing Virtual Iraq

The creation and championing of Virtual Iraq, the virtual reality technology at the center of Immersion, is most closely associated with Dr. Albert “Skip” Rizzo. A clinical psychologist, research professor at the University of Southern California (USC), and Director for Medical Virtual Reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT),[3] Rizzo was a cognitive-rehabilitation therapist at a California hospital in the early 1990s.[4] In his work then, he noticed that his predominantly young, male patients devoted more energy to playing with their hand-held Game Boy devices than to doing their cognitive exercises.[5] This observation spurred him to design virtual reality tools for clinical usage; after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he shifted to applications for veteran traumas.[6]

In spite of the Bush administration’s triumphalist “horseshit” in the invasion’s early days, Rizzo anticipated an influx of U.S. veterans would return with PTSD.[7] In the process of developing a tool geared toward treating war’s after-effects, he found a videogame that the ICT had been involved in building. That game, Full Spectrum Warrior, allows players to role-play as squad leaders and to perform real-time tactical combat operations. He decided to modify the content and give the game a therapeutic function. Rizzo stated,

“When I saw [the game], it looked just like Iraq. In my mind, anyway—I’d never been to Iraq. But it had that Middle Eastern look to it.”[8]

A view from inside the combat helicopter in Virtual Vietnam Another virtual view from inside the helicopter

Rizzo contacted ICT researcher Jarrell Pair, who had been the project manager of Virtual Vietnam in the late 1990s. Virtual Vietnam, a key precursor to Virtual Iraq, was the first virtual reality simulation designed to treat war-based PTSD.[9] Using more rudimentary technical elements and basic graphics, it featured one scenario in which users would sit in a vibrating chair while virtually riding a combat helicopter.[10] The other available scenario allowed users to navigate through a helicopter landing zone.[11] Though Virtual Vietnam showed promising initial results and gained traction in the Atlanta Veterans Administration Hospital, the project ultimately did not receive widespread implementation.[12]

A soldier and military psychologist using the Virtual Iraq technology

Based on the graphics from Full Spectrum Warrior, Rizzo and Pair built a prototype of Virtual Iraq. Their project received $4 million funding from the Office of Naval Research, allotted to continue developing the system and to conduct tests of VRET treatment at Army medical centers in California and Hawaii.[13] Based on one clinical trial of 24 active-duty soldiers that used Virtual Iraq for VRET, 45 percent of the participants recovered from PTSD and another 17 percent reduced their symptoms.[14] Other studies of military personnel have shown similarly promising results of treating or mitigating PTSD.[15] In the following years, developers from the ICT and other colleagues have collaboratively continued to add more features and scenarios. They have also adapted the terrains, architecture, and design of the program to create a comparable version called Virtual Afghanistan for U.S. veterans of the war in Afghanistan.[16] The Iraq and Afghanistan virtual systems are collectively referred to as Bravemind, which is currently in use at over 60 sites such as military bases, VA hospitals, and universities.[17] 

A road checkpoint in Virtual Iraq A road with mountains in the distance in Virtual Afghanistan

Though Virtual Iraq is only used for therapeutic purposes to treat military personnel serving on tour or after their tours of duty, its close resemblance to combat training simulations has become a point of contention for some critics. According to Joram ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer,

“That [similar] moving images used to help individuals forget the trauma of war [are] also used to make soldiers more effective fighting machines is, again, an ironic corollary to [Jean-Luc] Godard’s proposition that forgetting violence may be, in this case quite literally, part of the apparatus of violence.”[18]

As I discuss in greater depth later, Farocki also called attention to the disconcerting parallel between the two systems. He did so by juxtaposing footage from Virtual Battlespace 2: US Army (VBS2) and Virtual Iraq in a split-screen. The military describes the former system as a

“3-D, first-person, games-for-training platform that provides realistic, semi-immersive environments, dynamic terrain areas, hundreds of simulated military and civilian entities, and a range of geo-typical (generic) as well as actual geo-specific terrains.”

Thus, like so many other instances in his filmography, Farocki critically deployed the dialectical power of images to underscore and interrogate the often-unchecked power of images.

Virtually training soldiers in Virtual Battlespace 2 Conducting a mission in Virtual
Battlespace 2

Contextualizing the work of Harun Farocki

Near the end of his nearly fifty-year career as a politically committed director, screenwriter, essayist, and media theorist, Harun Farocki (1944-2014) fittingly coalesced many of his lifelong interests and techniques to create the series of works he called Serious Games I-IV (2009-2010). Among the corpus of the ninety-plus films he directed, most of which are short experimental documentaries, Farocki often evinced a deep investment in critically exploring the enmeshments of warfare, state policy, social institutions, and mass media technologies. Tied to these issues, he also frequently addressed concerns around how we see and perceive (or fail to see and perceive) these enmeshments via media representations, as well as the social, economic, and political conditions that underlie the productions of these representations.

To draw attention to the instrumentalization of media for the manipulation and control of subjects, Farocki also reappropriated found footage and industrial images. He formally manipulated them to elucidate their strategic constructedness and used montage and juxtaposition to evoke the interrelations between two seemingly disparate things. As he stated, his intention was to “investigate pictures, [and] take them apart to reveal their elements.”[19]

According to Thomas Elsaesser, Farocki had at least three requirements to determine whether he would address a subject:

“[H]e must be able to picture the phenomenon in its details as well as show it partakes of a larger process; he must be able to establish, however obliquely, a level of reflexive self-reference; and finally, he must be able to hint at a hidden centre, an Archimedean point, more often sensed than seen.”[20]

These objectives and techniques suggest the strong influence that other Marxist artist-critic-theorists like Bertolt Brecht and Jean-Luc Godard had on informing Farocki’s approach to cinema. His decision to produce nearly all of his work independently instead of accepting public sponsorship also acutely informed his creative process. These financial constraints shaped “his politics of image production: formally, stylistically, thematically, and materially” in many ways, including his tactical recycling of commercial footage and his making of industrial documentaries to finance his more critical, politically didactic projects.[21]

Many of Farocki’s most prominent films incisively confront the direct and more diffused institutional violences of war, albeit through unexpected and experimental methods. One instance is The Inextinguishable Fire (1969), in which the director first reads a transcript of testimony from a victim of U.S.-led napalm raids in Vietnam and then burns his own forearm with a cigarette. This sequence condemns the military-industrial complex and Dow Chemical’s production of Napalm B for the Vietnam War, while simultaneously investigating how to most effectively use audiovisual means to alert audiences to war’s inhumanities.

Testing out equipment in Eye/Machine II

More recently, Farocki made the trilogy Eye/Machine I-III (2001-2003), which uses images gathered from industrial and military surveillance technologies and traces the development of automated targeting systems. This footage accentuates the potentially fatal linkages between human and machine perception in warfare and interrogates the intensifying technologization of weapons and killing.

Farocki appearing in
The Inextinguishable Fire
Farocki burning his arm as embodied
and cinematic protest in The Inextinguishable Fire
Machine-assisted visions of aerial targeting in Eye/Machine I More vantages of vision and war technologies in Eye/Machine III

In 2011-2012, a comprehensive exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, “Harun Farocki: Images of War (at a Distance),” showcased the intersections of war and media throughout the director’s oeuvre. The exhibition, which displayed over thirty works and highlighted Farocki’s long-term practice of video installation, also marked the U.S. premiere of Serious Games I-IV.[22] In that presentation, three of the four parts of the series were shown on two-channel video screens, while the other part, Three Dead, played on a single-channel screen. Thus, Farocki’s commitment to experimentation occurred here both at the levels of form and format.

Installation view of Serious Games and other works from Images of War (at a Distance) at the Museum of Modern Art[24]


Another view of Farocki’s MOMA exhibition[25]

Placing the multi-channel videos in a museum setting invited viewers not only to experience the texts in more adaptable ways, but also to reflect on how the differential ways of visualizing and perceiving information can produce a variety of engagements. In this way, the museum presentation enabled viewers to experience the proliferation and simultaneity of information in an age of overwhelming mass media. Consequently, harkening back to early films like The Inextinguishable Fire, this emplaced arrangement of Serious Games reflexively pointed to the intense difficulty of fully immersing oneself in images of war. Like much of Farocki’s work, it also called attention to the multiple layers of intentional and contingent mediation that invariably negotiate the experiences of both filming and watching a filmed “reality.”[24] Concurrently, across these dual channels and multiple screens, a range of juxtaposed realisms also prompted engaged viewers to realize how the military and state strategically manipulates the realities of war, the topic that I will explore in the following sections.