Just over two decades ago, on May 5, 1992, a new computer game was released for DOS. Originally released as shareware, Wolfenstein 3D quickly became a success among the (then still quite limited) crowd of computer users. It was several more years before I encountered it and its ever-legendary successor Doom. By then, the world had moved on towards Windows; computers were made household items, gradually infiltrating the homes of the technologically uninclined, such as mine, and first-person shooters had become a rapidly developing subgenre.
Unlike other gaming genres which deploy the bird’s-eye view – used prominently in real-time strategy computer games such as Dune and Herzog Zwei – the first-person shooter signaled the rise of a different approach to the virtual sphere. The use of mathematical perspective, or the cinematic point-of-view shot, seems to have ushered an age in which the subject-object relationship vis-à-vis the virtual is constantly challenged. In other words, first-person shooters have attempted, from the start, to reduce the level of mediation and to simulate a unity between the protagonist and the player, between me and my computer, between the shooter and the I. It’s true that games as such attempt to do just that in some way or another, be it a board game or a role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons. But with the advent of 3-D graphics – even if 3-D at this point was still more Matisse than Caravaggio – the idea that the player is the protagonist, is in a different world while playing, a world which might even extend or augment his own world, gained plausibility and became ever more attractive among a crowd whose imaginative skills were perhaps less advanced than those of the average D&D enthusiast.
Now, fast-forward twenty years, and kids who were born with Wolfenstein and grew up with Half-Life, Quake and Unreal Tournament have become young adults.
For a while now we’ve witnessed the proliferation of a new YouTube subgenre – for lack of a better name we’ll call it “first-person shooter documents” – leaked from Afghanistan or Iraq. The latest, most conspicuous example has been the above video: a remarkable firsthand documentation, apparently filmed by (or through) an American soldier named Ted Daniels. According to the user who published the video, it shows Daniels as he attempted to draw fire – exposing himself in an attempt to help get his squad to safety. He was hit four times, and his grenade launcher and helmet cam were rendered useless. Apparently none of the bullets penetrated his body armor, and he was only lightly wounded. The video attracted over 20 million views and much media attention but also highlighted the incredible amount of similar footage available online, raising questions regarding the status of such footage. It remains unclear to what extent this helmet-cam media campaign is sanctioned by the U.S military, but it seems that, even if at times the videos are the result of individual initiative, the military is making no effort to prevent them from being published.
These documents seem to be the culmination of a tendency, both strategic and perceptual, that has been prevalent during most of the 20th century and has accelerated since the Gulf War. The core of this tendency, its most paradigmatic summation, may be found in a statement by William Perry, a former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense: “If I had to sum up current thinking … I’d put it like this: Once you can see the target, you can expect to destroy it.” As Paul Virilio makes clear in his extensive study of the subject, modern warfare and and the development of optical technologies are intertwined to such an extent that “a war of pictures and sounds is
replacing the war of objects.”* Cross out replacing, insert sublating. It is not a mere replacement of one mode (objects) for another (optics), but a Hegelian double negation – superseding, preserving and rising above.
In other words, serving as a final twist to Western thought’s ever-persisting bias for optics over haptics (its long-lasting optocentricity):
seeing is now destroying.
Wolfenstein 3D has now been superseded by C3I, the military capacities of command, control, communications and intelligence. If, within games, one’s real motor skills serve to destroy virtual enemies, it is the virtual – and its fuzzier brother the augmented – which now assist in destroying real people.
And yet, the clip should not serve as a mere comment on the dialectics of the virtual and the real; it also tells a story and has many narratorial merits which serve as a vehicle for the metanarratives delineated above. It is, above all, a story of a man on his own, perhaps forsaken. The vast expanses towards which he shoots and shouts give no hint of either enemy or friend. The shots which pierce the air beside him seem to be coming from nowhere, from some unidentifiable, abstract (low-res) enemy. The scene is also disjunct from any rationale, any cause: We viewers, but also the shooters, just appear. And then there is the descending motion, a katabasis – down the mountain, but also from potency to an almost existential loss. Staring at the desert landscape, hiding behind a rock and shouting for help.
* This statement, as well as the Perry quotation, can be found in Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1989), p 4.