TIME assigned conflict photographer Ashley Gilbertson to document the zombie apocalypse, as seen in The Last of Us on the PlayStation 4.

The Last of Us

My approach was to enter each situation, or level, and work the scene until I was confident I’d gotten the best photograph I could before moving on. It’s the same way I work in real life. Yet, I found it was more difficult to do in a virtual reality because I was expected to fight my way through these levels to get to the next situations.

I initially played the game at home. But after a short time playing it, I noticed I was having very strong reactions in regards to my role as the protagonist: I hated it. When I covered real war, I did so with a camera, not a gun. At home, I’d play for 30 minutes before noticing I had knots in my stomach, that my vision blurred, and then eventually, that I had simply crashed out. I felt like this could well be my last assignment for TIME.

None of the game’s characters show distress, and that to me was bizarre.

Occasionally the characters show anger, though generally they’re nonchalant about the situation they’ve found themselves in.

By the time I finished this assignment, watching the carnage had became easier.

TIME: A War Photographer Embeds Himself Inside a Video Game

Update: A harsh, but I think fair perspective from The Verge: An award-winning war photographer futilely attempts video game photojournalism

The photos, even at their most dramatic and well-shot, are bland.


The notion that video games desensitise us to violence is wrong I think. We really just get desensitised to this kind of unrealistic video game violence. But it’s interesting that a conflict photographer was so traumatised. However, if someone with experience in actual war zones can be traumatised by gameplay, than presumably it holds true that fans of violent videogames could still be susceptible to the traumas of real violence?

The observation that characters don’t show emotion is more interesting to me. Obviously in these games the protagonist has to be something of a blank slate, especially when he is essentially a puppet for the player.

For example, here is a picture of the dialogue options given to my Shepard character from Mass Effect:

Mass Effect

Note how she looks, as Gilbertson would say, like a zombie. That’s because the character I’m talking to has unexpectedly just spouted some poetry and I can respond either by taking an interest, by being polite, or by being quite rude. Obviously any expression on my character hinting at one of these opinions would break the illusion that the choice was mine to make.

It’s an interesting problem.

Light-based media

TIME embeds a war photographer in a zombie apocalypse (on the PS4)

“I left the experience with a sense that by familiarizing and desensitizing ourselves to violence like this can turn us into zombies. Our lack of empathy and unwillingness to engage with those involved in tragedy stems from our comfort with the trauma those people are experiencing.” — Ashley Gilbertson

Image

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