Should gamers be accountable for in-game war crimes?


Guardian Games Blog

The Red Cross has told the BBC that it wants military-themed video games to adhere to real-life international laws

Don’t shoot the civilians. This is something military games have been telling us for many years. I remember my first go on Taito’s explosive arcade title Operation Wolf – it was the late-80s and this frenzied blast-’em-up, with its jungle environment and hostage rescue missions, was clearly gunning for a generation of Rambo II fanatics. It even let you control the action with an Uzi-style sub-machine gun bolted to the cabinet. But what it wouldn’t let you do was kill passing civilians: collateral damage of this sort took a big chunk off your health bar.

Of course, this was really more about mechanics than ethics: players were being tested on their reactions and visual awareness, and failure meant a reduction in game time rather than a few moments’ reflection on innocent victims. These days, if you accidentally (or otherwise) shoot a civilian or comrade in a military shooter, you’ll probably get a ‘mission failed’ message and a one-way trip back to the last checkpoint. What you won’t get is a military tribunal and a dishonorable discharge.

In a BBC news report earlier this week, however, Francois Senechaud from the International Committee of the Red Cross told a reporter that, due to the increasing verisimilitude between first-person shooters and real-life combat, games should start to abide by the international laws of armed conflict. “Video games that represent contemporary battlefields are very close to reality,” he said. “It’s difficult to make out the difference between real footage and the footage you get from video games.”

What the Red Cross wants to see then is the player being penalised for carrying out such actions as willfully killing civilians or torturing enemy combatants, both of which are punishable under international law. A Q&A document posted on the organisation’s website explains:

The ICRC is suggesting that as in real life, these games should include virtual consequences for people’s actions and decisions. Gamers should be rewarded for respecting the law of armed conflict and there should be virtual penalties for serious violations of the law of armed conflict, in other words war crimes.

And importantly it adds:

Our intention is not to spoil player’s enjoyment by for example, interrupting the game with pop-up messages listing legal provisions or lecturing gamers on the law of armed conflict. We would like to see the law of armed conflict integrated into the games so that players have a realistic experience and deal first-hand with the dilemmas facing real combatants on real battlefields.

The ICRC says it is now working directly with the developers of modern military simulations and the BBC report contains an interview with Marek Spanel of Bohemia Interactive, creator of the Arma series, who claims the studio’s games will now be implementing the suggestions.

See more: militainment, gaming