Should You Be Allowed to Use Chemical Weapons in a Video Game?

Why the Geneva Convention doesn't work for Call of Duty.


No more torturing prisoners. No more shooting civilians. No more blowing up hospitals.

Your next Call of Duty game might be a bit less colorful — or less ethically challenged — if the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has its way. 

The ICRC is now asking video game publishers to incorporate the laws of war into their games. The organization makes clear that it is not calling for a ban on violence in video games, nor does it consider — contrary to earlier reports in 2011 — that war crimes in video games equate to real crimes. But it does want games to penalize players for violating the laws of war. "The ICRC is suggesting that as in real life, these games should include virtual consequences for people’s actions and decisions," notes the Red Cross website. "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."

The ICRC fears that the next generation of soldiers will have their notions of ethical battlefield behavior shaped by video games. "Certain game scenarios could lead to a trivialization of serious violations of the law of armed conflict," the organization says. "The fear is that eventually such illegal acts will be perceived as acceptable behavior." Such virtual behavior includes "the use of torture, particularly in interrogation, deliberate attacks on civilians, the killing of prisoners or the wounded, attacks on medical personnel, facilities, and transport such as ambulances, or that anyone on the battlefield can be killed." 

How widespread the problem is can be seen in an article on game site Gameranx, which identified 10 egregious cases of war crimes in video games, such as executing wounded prisoners in Call of Duty 2, genocide in Gears of War 3, and using torture against captives in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

But the ICRC is not calling for removing war crimes from games, on the grounds that including them is actually educational, allowing players to make the same difficult choices that real combatants face. "We do not suggest that games be sanitized of all illegal acts," ICRC spokesman Bernard Barrett said in an email to Foreign Policy. "Also, games must remain fun and challenging. A boring game is of little interest to the players, to the manufacturers or to us. We would prefer that players not be required to commit illegal acts to move to another level or be rewarded in some other way."

The ICRC has been working with Bohemia Interactive Studios, which publishes the Armed Assault series of first-person-shooter games (equally noteworthy is that Virtual Battlespace 2, the militarized version of Armed Assault, is the main tactical training game for the U.S. and foreign militaries). Bohemia Interactive Studios CEO Marek Spanel notes that Armed Assault has long had a feature where friendly troops will attack a player that attacks civilians or other friendly soldiers.

Barratt says the ICRC has also met with unspecified video game publishers at trade shows, and "we also know of other companies that have incorporated IHL [international humanitarian law] principles without having contacted us." However, none of the major video game publishers FP tried to contact, including Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, would say whether their games will reward players for heeding the laws of war.

There is precedent for the Red Cross campaign against virtual war crimes, in the same way that various groups focus on the portrayal of minorities, or smoking cigarettes, or wearing seat belts, in movies. The belief is that fictional behavior affects real-life behavior.

But limiting wanton violence in video games faces major hurdles. One reason is that there is too much money at stake in a video game market that is expected to gross $93 billion this year. Not that publishers directly make money off of soldiers shooting civilians, but analysts say that they are unlikely to tamper with a cash cow unless prompted to by government regulation, or unless lawsuits and news stories make it prohibitive to continue the status quo.

Then there is the whole question of whether video games actually induce or promote violent behavior, despite the hand-wringing whenever it turns out that a psycho gunman like Anders Breivik plays games. While some researchers conclude that virtual violence leads to the real thing, others dispute that assessment. Indeed, Barrett could not cite any cases where virtual war crimes led to real ones.

So why isn’t ICRC concerned with movies, when a film like Inglorious Basterds portrays enough war crimes to fill a courtroom at The Hague? "In video games, as opposed to films or books, the players are making active decisions whether to shoot or not," Barratt says. Indeed, roleplaying is the ultimate appeal of gaming, especially shooter games which purport to put you into the shoes of a modern soldier on a contemporary battlefield. Yet while the Red Cross says it is not concerned about violence in fantasy or science-fiction games, it’s hard not to wonder why the virtual crime wave in Grand Theft Auto V is any less morally corrosive than Battlefield 4.

When the ICRC and others worry about violence in video games, they focus on first-person-shooter games such as Call of Duty. Yet there is often appalling violence in Risk-like strategy games. In the popular empire-builder computer game Civilization, it is often easier to raze a captured city than occupy it. The best way to neutralize a rival power is to systematically destroy every one of their cities in what amounts to genocide. And what about a World War I simulation game like "The Entente" that allows the use of mustard gas, just as the historical combatants used? Would the games still be historical if players were penalized for using chemical weapons?

Programming the laws of war into a computer game is difficult when those laws themselves have so many loopholes. Hospitals can be bombed in real life if they are being used for military purposes. Civilians can be attacked if they are deemed to be acting as combatants, and nations and their lawyers have become adept at justifying such attacks. International law speaks of using force that is "proportionate" and not "indiscriminate," but how does a software developer code these concepts into computer games when not even lawyers can agree on exactly what they mean?

Which brings up the final problem: the difficulty of incorporating morality into video games that are all about action, not ethics. Games, like war, tend to elevate winning above all else, which is why players are always searching for ways to exploit loopholes in games. And if there is a loophole in a video game — and there is always is — then players will take advantage of it. When Grand Theft Auto V penalizes players who behave violently with a crackdown by the cops, does it lead to more ethical behavior, or just inspire players to find more clever ways
of killing and robbing? There should not be a reason for shooting civilians on a virtual battlefield. But if there is a reason, and it can be done without consequences or just for "fun," some players will find a way to make it happen.

Video games can teach tactics. They can’t teach morality.

Michael Peck is a defense writer. Twitter: @Mipeck1

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