The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) wants video game manufacturers to have their games acknowledge international humanitarian law.
Video games are currently one of the most common forms of entertainment across the globe. In 2012, video game companies sold 188 million units, according to the Entertainment Software Association. It is said that many popular video games series, such as Civilization, Halo, Modern Warfare and the Call of Duty series, operate on violent themes.
Many video games, particularly first person shooter (FPS) games, do not follow current rules of war, nor do they take into account internationally accepted human rights standards.
For example, games in the Call of Duty series, owned and published by Activision Publishing Inc., allow players to execute the wounded in contravention of the Geneva Conventions, to destroy civilian buildings, and to torture surrendered enemies, according to Gameranx.
In games such as The Entente and Spec Ops: The Line, players can choose to use chemical weapons like mustard gas or white phosphorous in manners that oppose the Hague Conventions or Convention on Chemical Weapons.
Furthermore, Civilization allows for the arbitrary use of nuclear weapons by players, and Gears of War 3 allows players to use a weapon that destroys every single enemy figure, raising concerns over depictions of genocide in games.
These games are war-strategy focused, and most offer the FPS experience. Even though they are meant to be realistic war experiences, they are not always historically accurate. For example, Entente, a WWI game, has options for players to use chemical weapons that were not allowed at that time.
While the ICRC is not calling for video games to be completely non-violent, they do want “games to penalize players for violating the laws of war,” Foreign Policy magazine reports.
Yet, some video game manufacturers are hesitant to heed the ICRC’s suggestions, because they fear that penalizing players for war crimes will detract consumers from buying their games. The “revenue [for the gaming market] is set to nearly double between 2013 and 2015 from USD 13.2 billion to USD22 billion,” a report from CNN stated, so any changes that could detract from that gain may be off-putting to manufacturers.
Therefore, many large video game manufacturers remain silent on the subject. Foreign Policy magazine reported that no major video publisher, “including Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, would say whether their games will reward players for heeding the laws of war.”
The ICRC wants to use video games as an educational tool. According to The Verge, “the ICRC really just wants to use games as a potential opportunity to spread knowledge about the laws of armed combat.”
While the ICRC wants to make games more educational, while depicting realistic combat, some game manufacturers don’t see the connection between video games and real-life violence, a debate that has centered on violent video games for over a decade.
Lack of correlation between video games and violence
Although there is an argument that all forms of media can impress ideas of morality on their consumers, video games are particularly seen as having the capacity to work as learning tools.
This is because in video games, the consumer has to actively make decisions as they use the product, as opposed to television, film, radio, or print materials.
While some people believe that video games are good educational tools for military personnel, it is not as clear if they are beneficial learning tools for civilian players.
Although some people argue that FPS games are harmless given that they are virtual depictions, others worry that they can train people to commit acts of violence in real life.
For example, Aaron Alexis, the gunman who fatally shot 12 people and injured three at the Washington Navy Yard on September 16, 2013, “played violent video games including Call of Duty for up to 16 hours at a time and friends believe it could have pushed him towards becoming a mass murderer,” according to The Telegraph.
Anders Behring Breivik, who committed the Norway attacks on July 22, 2011, said “at his trial that he played ‘Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’ as a means of shooting practice,” CNN reported.
On the day of the attacks, Breivik killed eight people when he bombed a government building, and another 69 people through a mass shooting at a Workers’ Youth League camp.
However the idea that violent video games lead to violence in real life has never been proven through academic work. The Washington Post published a ten-country comparison that showed that there was no statistical trend between video game sales and gun violence on nation-wide scales in the U.S.
Whether or not video games do in fact increase violent thoughts in consumers, they have become a useful educational tool, both in the classroom and in the military. For this reason, some game manufacturers are listening to the ICRC with an open-mind.
Video games as educational tools
While some game manufacturers seem to be ignoring the proposal, companies like Bohemia Interactive, which produces the popular FPS computer game series ARMA, have been excited to collaborate with the ICRC to make their games follow intentional humanitarian laws.
Marek Spanel, the CEO of Bohemia Interactive, views the company’s games as valuable teaching tools for military units across the world. “These games are used by many different military organizations,” said Spanel in a video published by the ICRC Resource Centre, “Basically across all of the NATO countries because they recognize this to be a very efficient method of training people.”
Bohemia Interactive says that their games following international humanitarian laws is a positive move, as it would make the games better for military educational purposes.
In the ICRC Resource Centre video, Ivan Buchta, the Creative Director of Bohemia Interactive commented, “When we were first approached by the ICRC with the offer to consult on International Humanitarian Law, my first thought was Wow! We’ll learn something new we could put into the game. We’ll make it more authentic.”
In order to do this, the company decided to penalize players through the game play if they did not follow the rules of law for ethical combat, meaning if they attacked civilians or non-enemy military personnel.
“When we realized some players just…took the gun and just fired at everything that moved, so we felt like this is just not right, and we introduced a simple yet very intricate mechanism that if you do this and there are any friendly troops around you, they will attack yourself,” said Spanel.
While Bohemia Interactive is excited about the proposal, Michael D. Gallagher, the CEO of the Entertainment Software Association, which represents American computer and video game publishers, sees the move as in infringement on the first amendment.
“Computer and video games are entitled to the same protections as the best of literature, music, movies, and art. In the end, Americans’ rights to speech and expression are sacred,” Gallagher wrote in a piece in U.S. News and World Report.