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ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 4, Number 3 (October, 2007).

Special Issue: Remembering Baudrillard

The Iraq War Is Virtually Taking Place1


Robert Mackey

(The Lede, New York Times.com)



Part of “Virtual Iraq” a soldier undergoing therapy sees.

(Institute for Creative Technologies)


            The French philosopher and critic Jean Baudrillard, who died this week, famously claimed that “the Gulf war did not take place.” One of his better known theories postulates that we live in a world where simulated feelings and experiences have replaced the real thing. This seductive “hyperreality,” where shopping malls, amusement parks and mass-produced images from the news, television shows and films dominate, is drained of authenticity and meaning. …


            In 1986 he published America, in which he wrote, “America is the original version of modernity,” referring to what he considered the almost complete blurring of reality and unreality. To his French readers, he said: “We are a copy with subtitles.” Baudrillard’s work, or rather what he termed “misunderstandings” of his work, also inspired The Matrix.
            It is difficult not to think of Baudrillard when listening to an interview with an American psychologist named Skip Rizzo on Guardian Unlimited’s “Science Weekly” pod cast. Professor Rizzo, who recently addressed the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on “Therapy in Virtual Worlds – Comparing Mental Health Applications Using Individually Administered Virtual Reality and Second Life,” has been experimenting with the use of virtual reality environments adapted from video games to treat veterans of the Iraq war who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As The Guardian’s James Randerson explains:

A course of the experimental therapy might begin with the patient standing next to a Humvee truck in the virtual world – which is based on the computer game Full Spectrum Warrior. Once they are comfortable the therapist might ask them to get in, start the engine and drive away. “Over the course of the sessions we gradually have them do things that are closer to their traumatic memory,” said Professor Rizzo. “We start adding in guns, bombs, insurgents, debris on the road, being attacked and so forth. We do this in a very measured and progressive fashion based on what the client can handle.


A National Public Radio report on an earlier stage of Professor Rizzo’s work includes video and audio of what a soldier undergoing the therapy sees and hears during the treatment and describes the mechanics:

The soldier being treated wears VR goggles and headphones. Using a tablet-based interface, a therapist can activate or remove the sounds of gunshots or the sight of smoke, depending on a patient’s reaction. The idea is to re-introduce the patients to the experiences that triggered the trauma, gradually, until the memory no longer incapacitates them.


            Randerson writes that Rizzo told him that he has now been able to add vibrations and even smells to the simulation to make it more evocative and emotional. Different smells are used, including gunpowder, cordite, burning rubber, Iraqi spices, barbecued lamb and body odor…. Researchers are looking into replicating the smells of blood and burnt flesh. “I’m not sure we need to go to that level of intensity … but it is something we are considering and exploring.” The NPR report on Professor Rizzo’s project – which is a collaboration between the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California and the Office of Naval Research – concludes with this observation: “Early results from trials suggest virtual reality therapy is uniquely suited to a generation raised on video games. The gaming aspect of the treatment also helps to lessen the stigma associated with getting therapy”.

© Robert Mackey and New York Times



1 This article appeared in The Lede: Notes on the News (New York Times.com) on March 8, 2007: http://thelede.nytimes.com/2007/03/08/the-iraq-war-is-not-taking-place/


© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)

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