copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, fall 2016

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

by Daniel Grinberg

[Note: sometimes you italicize game titles and sometimes you do not. It would be more consistent and easier to read if you italicized them throughout. Do you have a reason not to?]

“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.’”

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]

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]

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] 

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.

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. 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.

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.

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.

Phenomenological realism

As Kevin is utilizing Virtual Iraq in Immersion, the text makes it evident that his VRET experience is not only visual but multisensory. We can observe that Kevin’s head-mounted display is spatially modulated, meaning that his virtual self is mirroring his physical movements. In addition, he is cradling a prop M4 rifle in his hand, which both provides a sense of haptic verisimilitude and contains a gamepad that facilitates virtual navigation.[25] Through these controls, he can participate in different kinds of movement, including walking through streets, entering buildings, climbing onto rooftops, or riding in a Humvee.[26] Throughout the experience, he can also feel sensations that replicate tactile impacts like explosions and bumpy roads through the platform he is standing on and hear noises such as bullets, mortar shells, wind, traffic, or helicopter blades through his headphones.[27] The technology is additionally equipped with a scent palette that can emit representative smells like gasoline, Middle Eastern spices, burning rubber, and even body odor to enhance the sense of immersion.[28]

This array of sensorial features is intended to catalyze the recollection of traumas by surpassing the optical. As Laura U. Marks notes,

“It is not accidental that certain experiences are most likely to be ‘recorded’ only in the nonaudiovisual registers of touch, smell, and taste. The fabric of everyday experience that tends to elude verbal and visual records is encoded in these senses.”[29]

Therefore, by mimetically reproducing the bodily sensations of Second Iraq War veterans, the technology is drawing on a phenomenological realism to help the participants access otherwise inaccessible knowledge.   

The realism of the simulation simultaneously engenders more realistic phenomenological reactions from the participants. Throughout his session, Kevin is connected to machines that monitor and evaluate his physiological responses, such as his heart rate, breathing levels, body temperature, and even his palm sweat.[30] At the most intense moment in his retelling, when he attests that he is “freaking out,” he crouches down and covers his head. With his voice quivering, he also states that he is the verge of vomiting. Together, this collection of reactions appears to fit the characterization of PTSD, which is a condition that is “precipitated by a terrifying event or situation” and “characterized by nightmares, flashbacks, and intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts, as well as by emotional detachment, numbness, jumpiness, anger, and avoidance.”[31]  

By showing this range of bodily indicators, Farocki’s film realistically conveys the intense distress that the recollection of traumas can induce. In addition, Kevin’s sensorial responses become an epistemological resource for viewers and may affect their perceptions of these phenomena on a similarly sensory level. Vivian Sobchack describes the power of cinema to

“transpos[e] what would otherwise be the direct, individual, and intrasubjective privacy of direct experience as it is embodied into the visible, public, and intersubjective sociality of a language of direct embodied experience.”[32]

In other words, viewers can feel sensations and make sense by watching characters feel sensations and make sense within their cinematic reality. Along a similar line of thought, Roger Hallas has proposed the concept of ‘corporeal implication,’ which implicates viewers’ bodies “in the act of bearing witness . . . through a simultaneously visceral and imaginative encounter.”[33] In these ways, the title of the film refers not only to soldiers immersed in warfare and veterans immersed in VRET, but to the viewers who may become affectively, phenomenologically, and physically immersed in the painful realities of this depiction.

The corporeal implication of Kevin’s portrayal is vital to evoking the serious, long-term consequences that combat soldiers routinely endure, especially in light of the pervasive marginality of veteran health in the mass media and the public imaginary. For instance, a 2012 Department of Veteran Affairs report stated that nearly 30% of the 830,000-plus Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who sought treatment at VA hospitals and clinics were diagnosed with PTSD,[34] a figure that does not even account for the traumatized veterans who did not seek help through that channel. A Department of Defense study registered the impacts of war even more starkly when it found that U.S. veterans were committing suicide at a rate of 22 per day in 2012.[35] More recently, the Veteran Affairs scandal in May 2014 revealed that some of the department’s medical centers were falsifying data to conceal the months-long delays veterans could face to receive treatment and underscored the institutional devaluation of the physical and mental health of U.S. military personnel.[36]

Simulated realism

In a preceding sequence of Immersion, Skip Rizzo is describing the Virtual Iraq interface’s array of customizable features for the camera. As he provides an onscreen presentation, he notes that

“over time, we expanded the environment . . . [and] made it so you could adjust the time of day, the weather conditions, sandstorms, night vision, building interiors.”

He proceeds to exhibit the newly added ability to change locations mid-session. This commitment to adaptability shows the developers’ quest to produce a convincing verisimilitude while also enabling the therapists to instantly alter settings in ways that exceed reality. The evident logic behind this credible level of detail is to help participants more effectively process their repressed trauma. However, an underlying economic motive may be to promote the array of technically impressive features as a figurative and literal selling point of the technology.

As Kevin’s demonstration shows, the simulated realism of walking through an Iraqi town allows veterans to confront painfully traumatic events at a safer, more removed distance. They can hear bullets and experience the force of exploding bombs without the risk of being physically injured. Over the course of multiple sessions, they can also gradually work up to more intense scenarios in a controlled environment with the supervision of a therapist. Outlining her experience of using VRET to treat veterans, psychologist Karen Perlman says,

“It’s a very collaborative relationship. I know which stimuli I’m going to add as the therapy progresses. … I say, 'I think you’re ready for the I.E.D. blast or for more airplanes.'”[37]

Consequently, the simulated real is continually mediated and improvised, interactively entwined in a dynamic relationship with the veteran’s phenomenological reactions and the therapist’s contemporaneous decisions.

Yet, throughout his Serious Games series, Farocki makes it clear that Virtual Iraq only simulates an incomplete, biased, and ideologically driven version of reality. Most notably, he draws attention to the extremely marginal roles of Iraqis in the technology and their use as props for U.S. objectives. This major lacuna becomes visualized in the opening and closing moments of Immersion, which features the same sequence of virtual reality footage. In both iterations, the simulation of virtual Iraqis walking around a neighborhood is displayed on the left-hand side of the screen with no physical counterpart on the right. Without a subject guiding the scene, viewers are given no sense of who is controlling this world. Then a bomb suddenly explodes and the local civilians flee in horror, screaming but not otherwise speaking.

 As Kodwo Eshun states,

“Every pixel celebrates its industrial might. … So of course you would have Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for soldiers, rather than for Iraqi civilians. The soldiers who carry out the ‘shock and awe’ are the people who are repaired, in order that they can go out and do more shocking and more awesome damage.”[38]

While the treatment of U.S. veterans’ traumas is the focal point for the technology, Iraqis’ traumas pointedly do not factor into the design. In the program, Iraqis only appear virtually as potential victims or enemies and the subjectivity that activates the technological interface is always an U.S. soldier.

The marginalization of simulated Iraqis relates to misconceptions of what ‘real’ PTSD looks like. Angela M. Carter has critiqued the

“pervasiveness of the white, hetero-masculine soldier as the dominant image of PTSD in our national imaginary”[39]

This characterization is one that aptly describes Kevin in Immersion. Carter further writes:

“[F]or someone to overcome the shattering affects of trauma and regain a stable, coherent understanding of themselves … they must have had some conception of stability to begin with. For those of us whose entire lives have been lived in traumatizing environments, there can be no post-trauma because there was never a pre-trauma.”[40]

Therefore, while studies demonstrate that those most prone to experiencing traumatic events in both times of war and peace are minority groups, the poor, and the disenfranchised,[41] the system designers may unconsciously consider Iraqis unfixable and incoherent with no singular traumatic event to identify. Therefore, the PTSD of Iraqi civilians and soldiers is not ‘real’ enough to be meaningfully simulated.

Immersion registers another telling critique through its relation to A Sun With No Shadow, the next and final installment of Serious Games. In the latter film, Farocki juxtaposes the use of Virtual Iraq as a therapeutic device for veterans and the use of Virtual Battlespace 2 to train soldiers for combat. By comparing the training and therapy interfaces, he reveals a key difference between the media. Namely, the virtual sun in VBS2 casts shadows that accurately reflect the position of the Middle Eastern sun, while the sun in Virtual Iraq casts no shadows. To emphasize the discrepancy in the military’s economic priorities, Farocki positions the two visuals side-by-side in a split-screen. An intertitle then states,

“The system for remembering is a little cheaper than the one for training.”[42]

This inconsistency in verisimilitude bestows the virtual reality footage in Immersion a retroactive surreality, suggesting that its technical shortcomings reflect an institutional negligence. Highlighting that lack of attention to realistic details also invites viewers to ask what other oversights veterans must contend with.

Furthermore, the juxtaposition of VBS2 and Virtual Iraq highlights how irrevocably entwined the real and the simulated have become throughout all stages of contemporary warfare. In his discussion of the Persian Gulf War, Paul Patton diagnosed this shift toward dehumanized warfare that new military technologies have only exacerbated. Patton's introduction to Jean Baudrillard's The Gulf War Did Not Take Place states::

“Technological simulacra neither displace nor deter the violent reality of war, they have become an integral part of its operational procedures. Virtual environments are now incorporated into operational warplanes, filtering the real scene and presenting aircrew with a more readable world. The development of flight simulators provided an early example of the computer technology which allowed the boundaries between simulation and reality to become blurred: the images and information which furnish the material for exercises and war games become indistinguishable from what would be encountered in a real conflict”[43]

In his own theorization, Baudrillard argued that the conditions of late capitalism had produced the age of the hyperreal, in which the real and the representation had become indistinguishable.[43] He identified commercial media like film and television as key instruments of the hyperreal, because they degraded the boundaries between the real and the representative.[44] Regarding the Gulf War, Baudrillard built on these ideas to assert that the conflict was a “[p]romotional, speculative, virtual” simulation of war rather than one that fit the legal and political criteria of a real war fought for its own ends.[45] Though some critics criticized his deliberately provocative and contrarian stance,[46] he, along with Paul Virilio, influentially elucidated the televisual spectacularization of warfare that heavily shaped public opinion during both Iraq Wars. His recognition that the “profound indeterminacy of this war stems from the fact of its being both terminated in advance and interminable”[47] also arguably presaged the even more nebulous and ever-shifting boundaries that have characterized the ongoing War on Terror.

Farocki’s lifetime of work suggests that he aligned with but stopped short of fully embracing Baudrillard’s critiques. Like Baudrillard, Farocki demonstrated an acute concern for the blurring of the real and representative, and maintained a comparable skepticism toward the ideological machinations and formal manipulations of mass media throughout his career. Tellingly, his cynicism toward the rhetoric and technological flashiness of Virtual Iraq reflected a sustained wariness of war and surveillance technologies. Yet, as Thomas Elsaesser has observed, one important distinction is that Baudrillard upheld a visible reality and a simulated version of that reality, while Farocki was more attuned to the limits of visibility, scale, and intelligibility that render the conditions of reality difficult to index and represent.[48] Farocki’s decision to become an artist and documentarian also reaffirmed his belief in the potential—and indeed, the dire need—for a resurgence of critical media theory and praxis that endeavors, against these considerable odds, to stage meaningful interventions in public and political life. Thus, he upheld the conviction that some modes of media can still offer ways to puncture the condition of hyperreality. They can still creatively reveal the otherwise invisible and unintelligible and revitalize meaningful engagements with reality.

Documentary realism

By waiting to reveal the true nature of Kevin’s and Barbara’s interaction, Farocki was simultaneously challenging established documentary conventions and reflexively noting the genre’s inherent but not always acknowledged manipulations. Though viewers may assume that documentary has a stronger truth claim than fiction films and provides a more direct vantage onto reality, the “creative treatment of actuality,” as John Grierson famously defined the genre,[49] can lead to techniques that unintentionally or deliberately distort the parameters of actuality and invention. Bill Nichols has extrapolated on this complicatedly ambiguous relationship, writing:

“Documentary is a fiction unlike any other precisely because the images direct us toward the historical world, but … we are left to determine if the sounds and images we attend to also occurred in or outside of social history, within the web of fabrications needed to construct the time and space of a story of within the folds of a larger history. No guarantees exist.”[50]

This indeterminate capacity to bend the truth can be located in the documentary genre’s incipient stages. In his 1922 silent film Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty used reenactments and altered key facts, including the protagonist’s name and the identity of the protagonist’s wife. [51]

Though Farocki’s choice to use role-play (a significant form of reenactment) was partially motivated by the demands of ethical human subject research and the military’s stipulation that he could not film real veterans, he has also incorporated this technique in his documentary work since the 1980s.[52] For him, it provided a form of representation that an observational documentary mode like direct cinema could not achieve. Farocki said,

“If you’re a documentarist, you know how unstructured life is and how people are talking when they’re not scripted, but if they have a role-play, there’s already some… structure and even a wonderful artificiality in the things you are recording.”[53]

Paradoxically, despite the artificiality that Farocki sought to capture in his work, the role-play technique can also persuade documentary viewers to believe more firmly in the veracity of Kevin’s account. As Farocki noted,

“He played his role so convincingly that friends and colleagues whom I had told we were filming role-play assumed that he was recounting an actual, genuine memory.”[54]

In this sense, performing the ‘real’ can create a credible documentary realism that is difficult to distinguish from a cinéma vérité realism.

Furthermore, Farocki’s manipulation of documentary convention could prompt viewers to recall the relentless distortions of truth and fiction throughout the build-up to, fighting of, and aftermath of the second Iraq War. It recasts notorious historical moments performances designed to deceive multiple levels of local, national, and global audiences. This includes:

At the same time, this manipulation of truth/fiction also recalls the falsified and incorrectly interpreted military intelligence reports that the war was predicated on and the complicity of the mainstream news media that uncritically disseminated such false, government-supplied information by masquerading it as objective journalism. Like documentary, Farocki thus implied, corporate war journalism is also a fiction unlike any other. Though it maintains ties to the historical world, it nonetheless only provides a limited, arranged, and deliberately or unintentionally skewed version of reality. 

Additionally, in contrast to the predominant mode of ground-level cinema vérité that typifies Iraq War documentaries, Immersion compels its viewers to view the war from an unexpected yet more representative perspective. Calvin Fagan has argued that the embedded-with-the-troops proximity that vérité documentaries like Gunner Palace (dir. Michael Tucker, 2004) and The War Tapes (dir. Deborah Scranton, 2006) offers is inadvertently myopic. He has observed that these films

“maintain individual interaction as the locus of warfare, and thus serve to authenticate the embodied reality of contemporary wars despite the countervailing tendencies toward virtualization and disembodiment.”[55]

Therefore, as the modalities of warfare shift and increasingly incorporate technologies like virtual reality, cyberweapons, dataveillance, and drones, documentarians must also vigilantly adapt the tools and techniques they use to document and divulge these updated realities in response.

Brechtian realism

Throughout his artistic career, Harun Farocki endeavored to make viewers of his films reexamine institutional values, connect a diverse set of hegemonic social infrastructures and systems, and critically interrogate the truth status of media texts by documenting sites of media production. In a description that aptly fits the Serious Games series, Chris Pavsek has noted,

“Each of Farocki’s observational films in some way engage in a pedagogy of denaturalisation or de-reification: processes that we assume to be natural or (in Lukács’ notion) ‘second nature’ are revealed to be the product of an intense educational process and training, matters less of instinct than of ingrained habit and ideological indoctrination.”[56]

Ken Johnson has also argued that Farocki

“invites scepticism about the representation of reality in general. His art is a meditation on the degree to which our world, what we take for reality, is formed by recording and image-making machinery.”[57]

Thus, by denaturalizing the apparently natural, Immersion reflexively builds on the aforementioned realisms and challenges viewers through a dynamic version of Marxist realism.

Farocki’s approach reflected the major influence of Marxist realist Bertolt Brecht.[58] In his own writing, Brecht dismissed the rigid standards of realism that fellow Marxist Georgs Lukács espoused could only apply to the bourgeois novel. He countered that this form was itself the product of a particular historical moment and constrained artists’ creativity.[59] Instead, Brecht advocated for a more dynamic, populist, and updated conception of realism that was “wide and political, sovereign over all conventions.”[60] Though Brecht, like Lukács, defined realism as a mode dedicated to “discovering the causal complexes of society” and “unmasking the prevailing view of things as those who are in power,” he also encouraged artists to use their imaginations, humor, and originality.[61] In their quest to produce new kinds of realistic expression, he also recommended the incorporation of unforeseen complications, irregularities, and twists.[62]

Tellingly, Farocki, who employed radical forms and unpredictable techniques throughout his oeuvre, repeatedly described Immersion as a “Brechtian” work.[73] He also likened Kevin’s head-mounted display to masks worn by the Chinese actors that informed Brecht’s approach to theater.[64] Akin to the ‘alienation effect’ that this East Asian style of acting can galvanize, the disconcerting sight of Kevin wearing the cyborg-like equipment is intended to defamiliarize viewers and their current conceptions of reality.

Yet, the clearest connection to Brecht is the concluding revelation that Kevin is a military psychologist. A response to Brecht’s call for twists, this distanciating move ruptures the assumed reality to nudge viewers to notice the broader social and economic logics at play. Namely, it transmutes Kevin’s identity from a traumatized veteran to a man who is performing a fictional trauma in order to promote Virtual Iraq to the military. Rather than a fraught therapy session, Kevin and Barbara’s exchange also transforms into a calculated sales pitch much like Skip Rizzo’s preceding demonstration. Their success depends on the wide adoption of this product, even while its implementation may facilitate the waging of future wars and render these conflicts even more asymmetrical. In a sense then, by selling the war technology, they are making war itself easier to sell. This covert approbation of war through the celebration of its high-tech innovations occurs more overtly (albeit sometimes mitigated by the representations of ethical, legal, and technological dilemmas) in many U.S.-focused war films such as Eye in the Sky (dir. Gavin Hood, 2016), Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012), Black Hawk Down (dir. Ridley Scott, 2001), Top Gun (dir. Tony Scott, 1986), and Victory Through Air Power (dir. James Algar et al., 1943). 

As the closing credits further confirm (but do not fully explain), Kevin Holloway, Barbara Rothbaum, and Skip Rizzo are all psychologists and academics that work for or collaborate with the military. The demonstrations they are enacting in Immersion are for the benefit of a group of U.S. Air Force psychologists at Fort Lewis’ Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Washington (now known as the Joint Base Lewis-McChord). Like the development of Virtual Iraq, the military has sponsored the research that Holloway, Rothbaum, Rizzo, and others have conducted on VRET. Though such junctures between the academic and military have long been routinized, other instantiations signal the potential risks of this partnership. For instance, in the 1970s, it was the Office of Naval Research that sponsored Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s infamous and ethically unsound prison experiment,[65] as well as his and Gregory L. White’s research into the ‘chilling effects’ that surveillance produces on monitored subjects.[66] In 2015, a coalition of health professionals and human rights activists also disclosed that the American Psychological Association had secretly collaborated with the Bush administration to participate in interrogations and provide a medical justification to the government’s extralegal torture program.[67]

Viewers intrigued enough by Immersion’s revelations to investigate further will also discover that the ICT, where Rizzo works, is a Department of Defense-sponsored “University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) working in collaboration with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.”[68] In 1999, it received $5 million annually in military funding, but as of 2010, the funding had increased to $30 million.[69] A contract extension in 2011 provided an additional $135 million for three years of research on and development of interactive training media for the Army.[70] The ICT website further boasts that its location “in Los Angeles facilitates collaboration with major movie and game makers” and that ICT concurrently helps “create realistic computer-generated characters in Hollywood blockbusters” and virtual technologies for the military.[71] Through this rhetoric, the institute promotes its amalgamation of academic, entertainment, and military partnerships as a lucrative opportunity rather than a conflict of interest. Rizzo has stated the terms of the arrangement more sardonically, referring to the institute as “the unholy marriage of Hollywood, the military, and academia.”[72]  

Such thorny intersections point more broadly to the state-corporate linkages that James Der Derian refers to as the ‘military-industrial-media-entertainment network’ (MIME-NET)[73] and Tim Lenoir calls the ‘military-entertainment complex.’[74] Lenoir has drawn links between official organizations like the U.S. Army’s Simulation Training and Instrumentation Command (STRICOM, but since renamed the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training, & Instrumentation, or PEO STRI) and the videogame industry.[75] His analysis shows how these groups have increasingly intertwined their technological and economic resources in ways that benefit both groups but are rarely transparent to the public.

One conspicuous example of the eroding boundaries between state and commercial initiatives is the U.S. Army’s development of America’s Army. A multiplayer first-person shooter (FPS) videogame, America’s Army mimetically simulates U.S. warfare and integrates real weapons and information from real training courses to act as a military recruiting tool.[76] After the game’s launch in 2002, players downloaded it from the U.S. Army’s recruiting website more than 2.5 million times and by 2013, the game had registered over 11 million users.[77] Commercial versions were also available for the Xbox and Xbox 360, and as mobile and arcade applications.[78] One of the Army’s major advertising agencies, Leo Burnett, credited the game with creating more positive public impressions of the U.S. military and catalyzing a spike in recruitment efforts that exceeded all other forms of advertising combined.[79] Perhaps predictably, given its enormous popularity with soldiers, developers have since reconfigured the game into an actual training tool of the military that offers dozens of applications.[80] [81]

More recently, military recruitment centers in shopping malls have also incorporated computers and videogame stations with military-themed games to entice younger generations of citizens to enlist.[82] This strategy aims to recast war as cutting-edge and interactive entertainment, while conveniently overlooking the ethical quandaries of killing and the less glamorous and sometimes abusive realities of military service.[83] In the words of Casey Wardynski, a Lieutenant Colonel and the primary creator of America’s Army, videogames represent an ideal way “to capture youth mind-share” and to impress the twelve- and thirteen-year-old boys who have not yet decided what to do with their lives.[84] According to Wardynski, “You have to get to them before they’ve made those decisions [about school and employment.]”[85]

To replace shuttering movie theaters on bases, the Army is also heavily investing in “high-tech concept” entertainment centers called Warrior Zones to entertain soldiers. One Army Major General described these base facilities as places where soldiers can

“focus on developing strong friendships that enhance a troop’s ability to maximize [his or her] potential and deal with the stresses of war.”[86]

Located at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord (where Immersion was also filmed), the first Warrior Zone cost $11 million and featured

“16 game stations with 55-inch high-definition monitors for Xbox and PS3 video games, computers with high-speed Internet access, more than 50 high-definition 52-inch televisions equipped with DirecTV, and 32 Alienware custom gaming computers.”[87]

Typically, Warrior Zones are also equipped with war simulation videogames such as Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Army of Two, and America’s Army.[88] Thus, soldiers who are in training or on active duty can simulate warfare in ways that appear recreational, but are intimately connected to the enactment and perpetuation of real warfare.[89]

By obliquely gesturing toward such multifaceted economic and industrial logistics, Immersion positions Virtual Iraq firmly within the MIME-NET system. Indeed, Rizzo and Pair not only adapted Virtual Iraq from the commercial game Full Spectrum Warrior, but Full Spectrum Warrior was itself developed by ICT and Pandemic Studios and based on a combat simulator that ICT had developed for the Department of Defense. Thus, from recruitment to training to operations to treatment, the military technologies derived from the entwinements of state-corporate partnerships are significantly mediating the perpetration and experiences of contemporary warfare.


Given Brecht’s commitment to a realism capable of “discovering the causal complexes of society,”[93] it is fitting that each of Immersion’s multiple realisms enhance Farocki’s overarching Brechtian critique of the MIME-NET. For instance, the need to convey the phenomenological realism of PTSD speaks to the negligible coverage of the disorder in the mass media and the formal and unofficial alliances of corporate news media and the state that diminish journalists’ critical capacities. Relatedly, the military’s prohibition on including real veterans in the film shows not only an ethical desire to safeguard traumatized soldiers’ confidentiality, but an attempt to change the narrative by promoting instead a state-of-the-art technological solution instead. In addition, the selective lacunae and partialities that occur at the design level of Virtual Iraq’s simulated realism such as the marginality of Iraqis and the exclusively U.S. subjectivity make sense when thinking of Virtual Iraq as a commodity funded by and designed expressly for the U.S. military.

Therefore, as Farocki’s Brechtian techniques avow, the military is strategically instrumentalizing a range of media infrastructures and technologies to simulate biased realities and to naturalize global conflicts for both soldiers and citizens. However, as Immersion defiantly and ultimately asserts, critical alternative media production can also be a tool to expose these tactics. It can advocate for a truer, more perceptive realism honed by the techniques of distanciation, skepticism, and defamiliarization. It can still raise questions and objections, although it must be more creative than ever to disarm the dominant narratives that aggressively glorify war and its technological marvels.


Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Chuck Kleinhans, Susan Seizer, and Naoki Yamamoto for their valuable feedback on this article. An earlier version was presented at the Undoing Health: States of Body and Mind Conference at Indiana University, where it also benefited from questions and comments from the audience.  

1. Like this quotation, all of the following quotations without citations come directly from Immersion, directed by Harun Farocki, 2009, two-channel video installation/digital file, 20 minutes.
[return to text]

2. Bertolt Brecht, “Against Georg Lukács” (first published in 1967), Aesthetics and Politics, essay translated by Stuart Hood (1977; London: Verso, 1980), 68-85, 82.

3. “Albert ‘Skip’ Rizzo,” USC Institute for Creative Technologies, 2016,

4. Corey Mead, War Play: Video Games and the Future of Armed Conflict (New York; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 136.

5. Ibid., 137.

6. Ibid., 138.

7. Skip Rizzo quoted in Mead, 138.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., 139.

10. Jarrell Pair, “‘Virtual Vietnam’ PTSD Therapy System (1997-1998),” Jarrell Pair, n.d., http://www.jarrellpair.com/virtual-vietnam-ptsd-therapy-system/.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Larry Gordon, “Virtual Iraq could help Iraq veterans,” Baltimore Sun, Feb. 11, 2007, http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2007-02-11/news/0702110038_1_virtual-reality-iraq-post-traumatic-stress-disorder/

14. Greg M. Reger, Kevin M. Holloway, Colette Candy, Barbara O. Rothbaum, JoAnn Difede, Albert A. Rizzo, and Gregory A. Gahm, “Effectiveness of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for Active Duty Soldiers in a Military Mental Health Clinic,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 24.1 (2011): 93-96. Notably, the three people who appear onscreen most prominently in Immersion (Skip Rizzo, Kevin Holloway, and Barbara Rothbaum) were all involved in this study.

15. For discussions of other clinical studies, see Albert Rizzo, Arno Hartholt, Mario Grimani, Andrew Leeds, and Matt Liewer, “Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for Combat-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,” Computer 47.7 (2014): 31-37.

16. Robert L. Hanafin, “Virtual Iraq/Afghanistan and how it is helping some Troops and Vets with PTSD,” Veterans Today, July 29, 2010, http://www.veteranstoday.com/2010/07/29/virtual-iraqafghanistan

17. “Bravemind: Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy,” Institute of Creative Technologies, 2016, http://ict.usc.edu/prototypes/pts/

18. Joram ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer, “Introduction,” Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence, edited by Joram ten Brink and Joshua Oppenheimer (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 1-11, 5.

19. Harun Farocki, “Making the World Superfluous: An Interview with Harun Farocki,” interview with Thomas Elsaesser, in Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, edited by Thomas Elsaesser (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004), 11-40, 16.

20. Thomas Elsaesser, “Harun Farocki: Filmmaker, Artist, Media Theorist” in Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, 177-189, 180.

21. Nora Alter, “The Political Im/perceptible: Farocki’s Images of the World and the Inscription of War” in Harun Farocki: Working on the Sight-Lines, 211-234, 212-3.

22. “Harun Farocki: Images of War (at a Distance), June 29, 2011-January 2, 2012,” Museum of Modern Art, 2011, http://moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/1179

23. “Harun Farocki: Featured Works,” Greene Naftali, n.d.,http://www.greenenaftaligallery.com/artists/harun-farocki - 9

24. For further discussion of Farocki’s cinematic corpus, see the November 2014 special issue of e-flux, http://www.e-flux.com/issues/59-november-2014/

25. Sue Halpern, “Virtual Iraq,” The New Yorker, 2008, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/19/virtual-iraq

26. Mead, 134.

27. Marisa Brandt, “War, Trauma, and Technologies of the Self: The Making of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy,” University of California, San Diego dissertation, 2013, 13, unpublished digital file and Mead, 135.

28. Brandt, 13, 39 and Mead, 135.

29. Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Raleigh, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 130.

30. Robert N. McLay, At War With PTSD: Battling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 167.

31. Halpern.

32. Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), 11.

33. Roger Hallas, “Sound, Image and the Corporeal Implication of Witnessing in Derek Jarman’s Blue” in The Image and the Witness, edited by Frances Guerin and Roger Hallas (London: Wallflower Press, 2009), 37-51, 39.

34. Epidemiology Program Post-Deployment Health Group - Department of Veteran Affairs, “Report on VA Facility Specific Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and Operation New Dawn (OND) Veterans Coded with Potential PTSD – Revised,” 2012, 8,
http://www.publichealth.va.gov/ docs/epidemiology/

35. Janet Kemp and Robert Bossarte, “Suicide Data Report – 2012,” U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs Mental Health Services, 2012, http://www.va.gov/opa/docs/Suicide-Data-Report-2012-final.pdf/

36. Richard A. Oppel, Jr. and Abby Goodnough, “Doctor Shortage Is Cited in Delays at VA Hospitals,” New York Times, May 29, 2014,

37. Halpern.

38. Harun Farocki, “Anaesthetising the Image: Immersion,” interview with Kodwo Eshun, Killer Images: Documentary Film, Memory and the Performance of Violence, 67-79, 71.

39. Angela M. Carter, “Re/Imagining PTSD: Toward a Cripistemology of Trauma,” Indiana University, Undoing Health: States of Body and Mind Conference presentation, Mar. 28, 2014.

40. Ibid.

41. These studies include Orla T. Muldoon and Ciara Downes, “Social identification and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in post-conflict Northern Ireland,” British Journal of Psychiatry 191 (2007): 146-149 and Stephani L. Hatch and Bruce P. Dohrenwend, “Distribution of traumatic and other stressful life events by race/ethnicity, gender, SES and age,” American Journal of Community Psychology 40.3-4 (2007): 313-332.

42. A Sun With No Shadow, directed by Harun Farocki, 2009, two-channel video installation/digital file, 20 minutes.

43. Jean Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra, translated by Sheila Faria Glaser (1981; Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 12-13.

44. Ibid., 79.

45. Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, 30.

46. One such vocal critic is Christopher Norris in Uncritical Theory: Postmodernism, Intellectuals, and the Gulf War (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1992).

47. Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,36.

 48. Alexander Alberro, “Farocki: A Frame for the No Longer Visible: Thomas Elsaesser in Conversation with Alexander Alberro,” interview with Thomas Elsaesser, e-flux 59, Nov. 2014,

49. John Grierson, “First Principles of Documentary” (1932) in Grierson on Documentary, edited by Forsythe Hardy (London: Faber & Faber, 1966), 145-156, 147.

50. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991), 160, 162.

51. Jill Godmilow, “Kill the Documentary as We Know it,” Journal of Film and Video 54.2-3 (2002): 3-10, 7.

52. Harun Farocki and Trevor Paglen, “Visibility Machines: A Conversation with Harun Farocki and Trevor Paglen,” National Gallery of Art, Nov. 4, 2014, http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/audio-video/audio/ faroki-paglen.html.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. Calvin Fagan, “Documenting Virtual War,” InMedia 4, 2013, http://inmedia.revues.org/733/

56. Christopher Pavsek, “Harun Farocki’s Images of the World,” Rouge 12, 2008, http://www.rouge.com.au/12/farocki.html

57. Ken Johnson, “Unfiltered Images, Turning Perceptions Upside Down,” New York Times, Aug. 26, 2011,

58. Brecht, 72.

59. Ibid., 68.

60. Ibid., 82.

61. Ibid.

62. Ibid., 83.

63. Farocki refers to Immersion as Brechtian in both “Visibility Machines: A Conversation with Harun Farocki and Trevor Paglen” and “Anaesthetising the Image: Immersion,” 72.

64. Farocki and Paglen.

65. For Zimbardo’s take on the Stanford prison experiment, see Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (New York: Random House, 2007).

66. Gregory L. White and Philip Zimbardo, “The Chilling Effects of Surveillance: Deindividuation and Reactance,” Office of Naval Research, 1975.

67. James Risen, “American Psychological Association Bolstered C.I.A. Torture Program, Report Says,” New York Times, Apr. 30, 2015,

68. “USC Institute of Creative Technologies” home page, Institute of Creative Technologies, n.d., http://ict.usc.edu/

69. W.J. Hennigan, “Computer simulation is a growing reality for instruction,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 2, 2010,

70. “USC Institute for Creative Technologies Receives $135 Million Contract Extension From U.S. Army,” Institute of Creative Technologies press release, Sept. 1, 2011, http://ict.usc.edu/news/press-releases/usc-institute-for-creative-technologies-receives-135-million-contract-extension-from-u-s-army/

71. Ibid.

72. Halpern.

73. James Der Derian, Virtuous War: Mapping the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network (New York and London: Routledge, 2009).

74. Tim Lenoir, “All but War is Simulation,” Configurations 8 (2002): 289-335.

75. Ibid., 315.

76. Brian Kennedy, “Uncle Sam Wants You (to Play This Game), New York Times, July 11, 2002, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/11/technology/uncle-sam-wants-you-to-play-this-game.html

77. Mead, 74-75.

78. Ibid., 75.

79. David Edery and Ethan Mollick, Changing the Game: How Video Games are Transforming the Future of Business (Upper Saddle River, NJ: FT Press, 2009), 141.

80. Mead, 75.

81. America’s Army is one of the most well-documented instances of contemporary military-produced media. For additional perspectives on the subject, see the ethnographic work of anthropologist Robertson Allen or the industrial perspective of Randy Nichols, “Target Acquired: America’s Army and the Video Games Industry” in the highly useful collection Joystick Soldiers: The Politics of Play in Military Video Games, edited by Nina B. Huntemann and Matthew Thomas Payne (New York and London: Routledge, 2010), 39-52. For an analysis of artist Joseph DeLappe’s digital protest and tactical reappropriation of America’s Army, Dead-in-Iraq, see Dean Chan’s “Dead-in-Iraq: The Spatial Politics of Digital Game Art Activism and the In-Game Protest” also in Joystick Soldiers, 272-286.

82. Jon Hurdle, “U.S. Army recruiting at the mall with videogames,” Reuters, Jan. 9, 2009, http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/01/10/us-usa-army-recruiting-idUSTRE50819H20090110

83. For one incisive exposé on the epidemic of military sexual assault and the institutional efforts to cover it up, see Kirby Dick’s 2012 documentary The Invisible War

84. Casey Wardynski quoted in Mead, 82.

85. Ibid.

86. William Mayville quoted in Mollie Miller, “Fort Riley opens Army’s 1st Warrior Zone,” Army.mil, Sept. 8, 2011,

87. Dwyn Taylor, “Military Architecture Goes Modern,” The Military Engineer, n.d, http://themilitaryengineer.com/index.php/item/184-military-architecture-goes-modern

88. Tim Hipps, “Warrior Zone: Innovative recreation opportunities for Soldiers,” Army.mil, May 31, 2011,

89. For more on the Warrior Zone, in relation to a history of theatrical exhibition for Army personnel, see Ross Melnick, “From Liberty Theaters to Warrior Zones: Military, Technological, and Industrial Change in U.S. Army Motion Picture Exhibition” in Cinema’s Military Industrial Complex, edited by Haidee Wasson and Lee Grieveson (Forthcoming, 2016).

90. Photo by Jerry Wilson, “FIRES Celebrates Warrior Zone Opening with Call of Duty,” 2nd Calvary Assn News Center, Jan. 23, 2012,

91. Albert Rizzo and Jarrell Pair, “A Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy Application for Iraq War Veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: From Training to Toy to Treatment,” American Psychological Association, 2005,
http://www.apa.org/divisions/div46/Amp Summer 05/RizzoArticle.pdf

92. Halpern.  

93. Brecht, 82.