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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 violence.

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 a "life".

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 cross. Concerned?

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 same magazines.



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 present Convention..."

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. Cool!


Dr. Robin Coupland
Dr. Robin Coupland is medical doctor at the ICRC Chief Medical Unit in Geneva.

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