War journalism has always evoked images of greenhorn reporters setting off on a quixotic quest to a faraway land to cover a conflict that eventually takes on a personal meaning for them.
This year, that romantic facade took on a new sheen with the Arab Spring, when anyone with a video camera, Internet access and social media account could become a frontline journalist reporting from the heart of the turmoil sweeping North Africa and the Middle East.
“All this may seem like fun to some, covering wars, but in fact it’s an extremely deadly business,” Tony Maniaty, a veteran war correspondent and now senior lecturer in international journalism at the University of Technology Sydney, told the Jakarta Globe.
“Some of my students are able to buy an HD camera, laptop and cheap air ticket from Sydney to Kabul and be reporting from the frontline for $5,000.”
But this desire to be at the center of the action regardless of preparation flies in the face of warnings by news organizations and press protection advocates about the need for specialized training for war correspondents.
“The situation is getting worse, not better,” Maniaty says.
“Into this scenario, young people are jumping into action usually without any training whatsoever,” he adds.
“In Libya recently, veteran reporters noticed a huge influx of young freelancers ‘trying their luck.’ Many are inspired by the expansion of social media reporting, and citizen journalism. We know the media death toll in Libya was exceptionally high.”
It is this worrying trend that prompted Maniaty, whose work has taken him to frontlines in East Timor, the Gulf War and the post-Soviet turmoil in Eastern Europe, to come up with Warco.
The video game is similar to a first-person shooter, but instead of playing a soldier wielding an array of weapons, the player is a video journalist armed only with a camera.
In Warco, named after the industry slang for “war correspondent,” the player takes on the role of a young female journalist, Jesse DeMarco, as she reports on a “hell on earth” revolution gripping the fictional African republic of Benouja.
In addition to the obvious dangers of frontline reporting (think friendly fire, sniper attacks and improvised explosive devices) the gameplay narrative also throws several curveballs at the player, including translation and language difficulties, government and military censorship, unwanted sexual advances, and on-the-job personality clashes.
The idea is to get the player to “learn and adopt the technical skills and psychological abilities required by real correspondents working in the ‘hot zone’ of war.”
“That’s the real motivation behind the Warco game,” Maniaty says. “If we can introduce the frontline dangers to teenagers and students in an entertaining and involved yet ‘safe’ way, that may save a few lives.”
He traces the inspiration for Warco back to his time reporting on the Indonesian invasion of East Timor.
“I covered the war in East Timor in 1975 for ABC [then the Australian Broadcasting Commission] News, and in that harrowing experience I was shelled and came under fire and barely escaped with my life,” he recalls of his time in the now-immortalized town of Balibo.
“Five of my fellow Australian-based news colleagues weren’t so fortunate. This experience, both their deaths and my having to report their deaths, left me with a lifelong interest in the issues of news safety and how we might better train and prepare young correspondents for frontline work.”
Maniaty has teamed up with game developer Morgan Jaffit and film director Robert Connolly, who directed the film “Balibo,” to work on the game. They received a 250,000 Australian dollar ($247,000) grant from Screen Australia and Screen New South Wales to come up with a proof-of-concept prototype, and are now seeking funding to develop the final product.
Two versions are expected for release: an entertainment version targeted at gamers looking for something different from the usual shoot-em-ups, and a training version for journalists that focuses on specific issues such as ambush and kidnapping.
The latter is meant to be a cost-effective alternative to the security training courses already available for those heading into high-risk environments, but Maniaty is quick to stress that it is not meant to substitute for real experience in the field.
“It certainly wasn’t, and isn’t, meant to replace real-life experience, but it could help acclimatize reporters to the battlefield experience,” he says.
“Remember, I went into East Timor totally unprepared, not even carrying a basic medical supply kit. A game like Warco might at least have prepared me for a range of challenges.
“Although it’s a game, it does expose novice reporters to the main threats and teaches them what to do and what not to do, so that they don’t go into conflict situations ‘cold.’ ”
Andi Riccardi agrees on the importance of prior training. A 15-year veteran with the Associated Press, his assignments have included the 2003 Iraq war and three stints in Afghanistan. His work has also taken him to locales as diverse as Fiji, to cover a coup d’etat, and Kashmir.
“A news organization must have a standard operating procedure in place for sending a reporter to a war zone,” he says.
“Safety is of the utmost importance. That’s why at AP we have to go through what’s called hostile environment training where we study the issues we’re likely to face: land mines, IEDs, what to do in the event of a kidnapping, or if you get shot, and so on.”
The idea of making this training available in a game, he says, is laudable. “I haven’t seen the game myself, but in principle, whether it’s a computer simulation or a training course, as long as it promotes safety for journalists, it’s a good thing,” Andi says.
But he also cautions that simulation is no substitute for real experience. “To make a rough analogy, just because someone’s good at a football game on PlayStation doesn’t make them a good football player in real life,” he says.
“There are other skills and qualities that are necessary to becoming a good war correspondent, such as mental fortitude, that you can really only gain from life experiences.”
A brief career
Faisal Assegaf, formerly a reporter with Tempo and now with the newly launched Detik e-paper, seconds the notion.
“I think the idea of the game is interesting and it could certainly help sharpen one’s instincts, but no matter how much theory and research you do beforehand, you can never be fully prepared for the reality on the ground,” says Faisal, who covered the Libyan civil war as well as conflicts in Lebanon and East Timor.
“Reporting is an art form and reporters are artists. That’s why you need experience in the field, you need courage, self-confidence. All that comes from one’s background and experience.”
The response to Warco from gaming sites has also been largely positive, with most praising it for highlighting the social angle in the oft-recycled gaming concept of war. Maniaty believes that once released, the game will go a long way toward preparing reporters for the rigors of the frontline, particularly given the ever-changing nature of a job reporting on the world’s conflict zones.
“It’s not a job you can learn in a classroom, or from a textbook,” he says. “You can say, ‘Don’t take risks’ or ‘Keep a distance,’ which is rather silly because the whole business is about taking risks and getting up close, otherwise you would see nothing and report nothing.”
But the problem of novice reporters jumping into the deep end without any prior training, he warns, will only continue, aided in large part by greater access to technology.
“I fear the situation is not going to improve,” Maniaty says.
“If anything, the spread of technology and the increasing mobility it allows means more young people will decide to risk their luck and have a go, if only in the hope of rapidly advancing their media careers. For those who die, of course, it will be a very brief career.”