A New VR War Game About Saving Lives Instead of Wasting Them

It's not Call of Duty, but it has heart.

A screenshot from Stringer.

If this was a conventional war game experience, I would have seen several rockets whirr by, a helicopter fall into the side of a building, a lot more shouting and a few kills to my name by now, all within five minutes of playing. But this is Stringer, and I am not a soldier, I am a journalist. 

This is probably the first time I’ve ever seen a Tim Hortons in virtual reality, never mind on an Oculus Rift. One of the goals written on the clipboard in front of me instructs you to observe a first aid demonstration. It’s just a square face with the red sign, a lot more basic looking than usual, either due to the nature of this game being an unfinished demo or because it’s situated in a military base somewhere in the digital Middle East.

There are also high fences, tanks puttering around and a massive Canadian flag hovering in the sky. After watching a few more demonstrations, I ride in the back of an armoured vehicle before being attacked. Now a dozen or so soldiers around me require medical assistance.

I have no gun, just a camcorder that records, rewinds and plays—plus some medical supplies (tourniquet, gauze, and ETD). Stringer isn’t a simulation about jumping into the fight, it’s specifically made to prepare war journalists with basic first aid skills in the heat of battle.

“I heard a BBC story about a journalist that had died overseas because she didn’t know basic first aid,” says Ben Sainsbury, a journalist who became project lead on the program. “I thought, maybe we could start working on something for combat journalists and it wouldn’t have as much red tape as a project with the army, because it’s basically just a training tool as opposed to having to prove something worked psychologically.”

Though Ben had never gone to Iraq, he was in the US Army, and had many friends who came back from war with PTSD. That being said, as compared to VR games aimed at PTSD treatment for soldiers, Stringer has more of a preventative focus. From his experience, Ben says combat journalists receive frighteningly little training before going into a warzone.

Even legendary war journalist Sebastian Junger came up with a similar idea to educate combat journalists: he launched the Reporters Instructed In Saving Colleagues (RISC) foundation to train freelancers in combat, after the death of his friend Tim Hetherington. While covering Libya in 2011, Hetherington sustained a shrapnel wound that could’ve been treated in the field, potentially saving his life, had some of his colleagues been better trained in field medicine.

Screenshot from Stringer.

“This is like an interactive manual,” said Sainsbury. “Instead of reading and looking at pictures, you have the opportunity to walk around and look... It wouldn’t be the best training, or replace actual first aid, but if you saw somebody who was bleeding, protrusion wounds, even having used the joystick you’d be better off than having done nothing.”

While the intentions of the game are great and the gameplay is educational, there's some downsides. The Razer Hydra, two motion batons coupled with the Oculus for Stringer, could only detect so much. The gestures to bandage the wound are vague and has a Wii-waggle to it. Though the animations on the screen were more researched and meticulous, to my gamey trained self they only registered as animations as indispensable as reloading a laser rifle.

During my second sit-down with the game—and this would be my eighth or so go with the Oculus Rift—I also found a strange piercing sensation in my gut. At first I thought it was hunger, but was later told that it was more likely motion sickness. The peanut gallery of people in the George Brown lab where the session was hosted said they’ve felt things like it with the Oculus before, and anticipate many new players to feel the same.

“The thing about Oculus is that it doesn’t have any appliance other than showing stuff to people,” said Ali Kokulu, developer and assistant producer of Stringer. “Yes, you can use the Oculus for 3D animation, which people tend to, you know, get closer, examine from different angles, that’ll be very useful. But it’s not a great interactivity tool.”

The Oculus Rift’s history so far is not a long one and there’s more to say about its potential, especially now that Facebook has topped up its coffer. But from what’s been experienced so far, even from the early models, is that the games as we know them, the most popular, most explosive, most adrenaline fueled, are not going to work here. That’s why on one end of the spectrum you see puzzle games and exploratory concepts like Darknet, Classroom Aquatic, and Undercurrent, to simulators like Stringer.

Sainsbury cited an early Team Fortress 2 demo on the device that went pretty disastrously. “It doesn’t lend itself so well to the Oculus,” said Sainsbury. “When the first demos came out, that game was so fast people started getting sick.”

“Right now when people play war games, they’re not immersed,” said Kokulu. “Being immersed, when done correctly, can give you a better feeling of horror. The horror of war. I think that’s why it would be interesting, to show a player sides of war rather than just having fun killing people.”

Limitations aren’t always a detraction, and the Oculus’ may redefine the kind of experiences we can expect from it in the future. “I don’t know what will happen when they solve all these problems,” said Sainsbury, “I don’t want to comment on that, but the limitations are causing a whole lot of innovation and it’s awesome.”

While the prototype of Stringer I played is in a development hiatus, both Sainsbury and Kokulu expressed a great deal of enthusiasm to return to a project similar to it, a unique perspective of the battlefield, one that could save lives. And given the enthusiasm towards the Oculus Rift, they likely won't be the last to pursue such a cause. In any case, it's good to see someone put together an army game that doesn't involve sniping the heads off of insurgents every five seconds.