I crossed the river and made my way past the offices, warehouses and light industrial units to Unit 9, Phoenix. Security was light - a smile was all I needed to get in. The battered doorway opened just wide enough to let one person through at a time - Low light levels are an essential part of this operation. Inside the dusty concrete warehouse an empty grease stained plastic chair faced me across a table covered in glossy leaflets and magazines. I flicked through them before turning round to take in the scene.
Two Virtual Humans introduced themselves as Sergeant Star and Ra'id. Star was relaxed and jokey, he tried to persuade me to sign up, but I declined. Ra'id was not at all happy to be there and became agitated if I asked too many questions.
I moved on to the training area. Here 'Warriors' are immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of the front line to prepare them for their assignments. Sights like a severed foot, smells like burning rubber and sounds like screaming. All painstakingly reproduced from real life samples.
The line between training and rehabilitation is a blurred one. The same technologies are employed for both. It's all part of the same game. The head of the project, Skip Rizzo, explained to me that returning Warriors often had a hard time adapting to civilian life. A pothole in the road is the IED that killed their friends, crowds are dangerous so they stay at home, commercial Hummers are a cruel joke. To put these men back together Skip's lab has developed a high tech version of Prolonged Exposure Therapy. They found that their patients were better able to deal with their traumas in the familiar environment of a video game.
Projected onto the back wall of the warehouse a version of the game ran in a loop. A small boy stood in front of it, entranced. He waved back at the virtual Iraqi boy in the market.
I made my way round once more to try and assimilate everything I'd seen. Then out into the sunlight, said thanks and goodbye and returned to the world I live in every day.
That, more or less, was my experience of the Virtual Iraq exhibition by Lisa Barnard. It really is a bit of trip down the rabbit hole. It's on every saturday and sunday until November 15th at Unit 9 Phoenix Place, Lewes.
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