What video games really teach us
by Robin Coupland
Video war games stimulate players in various ways. But are children
learning to violate international humanitarian law while playing
some of these games? If so, what can the Red Cross and Red Crescent
Movement do? Dr. Robin Coupland, a medical doctor with a strong
interest in humanitarian law, comments on the impact of virtual
The boy swung his gun onto yet another figure in uniform.
The gun kicked in the boy's hand and a burst of bullets hit
the soldier in the chest throwing him back against the wall.
"Cool!" said the boy's friend. The tinkling of spent
cartridge cases being ejected from the automatic mechanism
was interrupted by the command, "Reload!" Another
soldier appeared from behind a wall. The boy fired again hitting
the soldier's leg. The soldier dropped his gun and reached
down to his wounded leg. The boy finished him off with a hail
of bullets. "Cool!" said the friend.
I was not witnessing a street fight in the chaos of war. This
was a video game arcade. What was "cool" was the
approaching goal of 40,000 points which would earn the boy
another "life". The screen into which he was firing
his simulated weapon was a frenzy of explosions, running soldiers
and disintegrating bodies with an occasional, bloody "red
out" when the boy himself was "hit" and lost
So where's the problem? It is, after all, only fun and virtual
fun at that. But before you turn to the next article, consider
this: each "life" gained in the game was represented
at the bottom of the screen by a white square bearing a red
Since then, I occasionally wander into gaming arcades. I've
found that the Red Cross is a recurrent visual theme indicating
either violent achievement, ability to survive or both. Once,
I even played a game - something like Death Zone III - and
was both alarmed by the gratifying way I could scythe down
my enemies and fascinated by the realistic recoil of the gun.
Before losing my five Red Cross lives, I lived a brief, virtual
existence of extraordinary gratuitous violence.
Bookshops in airports and stations provide an insight into
how violent video games are promoted. Glossy magazines about
computer games carry reviews and articles which clearly target
young males and their presumed fascination for violence. Consider
this text of a review of a new version of a popular game:
"...the friendship moves were entertaining but took the
focus away from all the lovely violence. They're now history.
All that remains are fatalities. Just how we like it."
Or "...blood splatters the screen in beautifully rendered
3D." Or "Go on, finish him. Now all the daft humorous
finishing moves have been removed, you can enjoy the best
and bloodiest fatalities ever. It's back to basics and the
gore flies." One game designer claims: "We aren't
setting out to try and shock anyone, but we are making a very
realistic game. [This] may be the Saving Private Ryan of PC
games. [It] will contain racy and mature subject matter..."
Mature? And it gets worse. What about a web site inviting
readers to: "Torture your enemies. Save an arm and a
leg." Armed forces recruit through the pages of these
Hitting the target
In October 1999, the ICRC organized the Humans and Weapons
workshop. A small group of experts examined various aspects
of human behaviour in relation to weapons, violence and international
humanitarian law (IHL). The potential impact of screen violence
on combatant behaviour was discussed at length. The evidence
that violent video games influence both the attitude and behaviour
of some children is growing. Shooting to kill can, with the
aid of computer simulation, become reflex without ever handling
a real gun. The reflexes are reinforced by designed gratification
on hitting the target and, needless to say, repetitive playing.
Many such programmes start life as training devices for the
military and police and are later modified and marketed as
computer games. The difference of course is that at home or
in the arcade there is no kind of discipline or restraint
when it comes to shooting.
So what about violent films? This century has seen generations
of movie stars becoming role models. One study has shown the
role that most young males aspire to is violent and has little
regard for discipline. (He always gets the girl.) Soldiers
being tried for war crimes have testified how, when they were
committing the atrocity in question, they saw themselves as
their favourite, avenging, indestructible and thoroughly admir-able
Hollywood hero. Those who question whether attitudes and behaviour
are influenced by images in films should consider modern advertising;
companies pay vast sums to have their product shown in films,
however briefly. To claim that images in films have no influence
on our psychology is naive in the extreme.
Is it not obvious that, via the screens which they spend
so much of their day concentrating upon, young people are
being fed a visual diet of glorified and unrestrained violence?
Therefore, are we really sure that we are not witnessing a
massive and dangerous undermining of the fundamental meaning
of international humanitarian law? What can or should the
Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement do?
The IHL connection
In my opinion, doing nothing is not an option. However, trying
to prove that boys who play violent video games become violent
or violate IHL when they become soldiers would be difficult,
expensive and time consuming. Whatever data is brought to
bear on this, the science will be questioned. (Decades of
debate and legislation passed before the tobacco industry
acknowledged that cigarettes are bad for health.) Can we shift
the burden of proof? That is, can we put the video game and
film industries in a position where they have an obligation
to prove that their products are not a threat to IHL? A solid
legal basis to do this already exists: the Geneva Conventions.
In common article 1 of the Geneva Conventions governments
have pledged "to respect and ensure respect for the present
Convention in all circumstances". Could we not argue
therefore that governments have an obligation to prevent the
distribution of images which depict violations of IHL for
the purposes of entertainment and recreation and which may
influence the behaviour of future combatants? Another approach
could be based on article 44 of the First Geneva Convention:
"..the emblem of the Red Cross on a white ground.....
may not be employed, either in time of peace or in time of
war, except to indicate or to protect the medical units and
establishments, the personnel and material protected by the
Taking this one step further, the designers and distributors
of video games could recognize the commercial value in introducing
features which are compatible with respect for IHL. Achieving
objectives without shooting as many people as possible and
not shooting soldiers who are wounded or surrendering might
then merit a little Red Cross at the bottom of the screen.
Dr. Robin Coupland
Dr. Robin Coupland is medical doctor at the ICRC Chief Medical
Unit in Geneva.
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