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Does virtual war
need rules?


YOU’RE IN AN ABANDONED warehouse that’s been battered by gunfire. As part of a top-secret military operations team, you are interrogating a captured enemy who doesn’t want to talk. So you take some shards of glass from a broken window and insert them in the captive’s mouth.

This brutal scenario is in fact a sequence in Call of Duty: Black Ops, a video game that depicts clandestine operations of a secret, and entirely fictional, special forces team. In order to advance in the game, the player is compelled to give a command to the computer or play station to hit the detainee in the face.

This is just one example of how today’s first-person shooter video games put the player in the midst of a virtual, visually realistic and often extremely brutal war scenario. It also shows how many of these games contain scenes that violate the most basic rules or war.

Because millions of people play these video games every day, some worry that the games are influencing users’ perceptions about what soldiers are permitted to do during war. “There is no way that people who play these games for a couple of hours every day will not be affected by that experience,” says François Sénéchaud, a Swiss military reserve officer who now acts as ICRC liaison with armed forces.

“They are repeating the same actions. This is something the military calls ‘the drill’. This is how you instil a reflex in people.”

Several studies in recent years have also found numerous virtual violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) including the destruction of civilian property and intentionally directing attacks against civilians, among other examples. Several games also allow players to shoot injured soldiers who are hors de combat. Some games even included firing on medical units bearing the Red Cross, Red Crescent or Red Crystal emblem.

Rules of engagement
Even so, Sénéchaud insists the ICRC is not seeking to censor violent video games. Rather, the organization is proposing that video game manufacturers voluntarily integrate IHL into the games themselves. Sénéchaud argues that would make the games more interesting and realistic, and also encourage awareness and potentially better behaviour if those players ever become soldiers.

After all, many of these games are also used by military units for training and even as recruitment tools. “Through those games, we are addressing the future combatants, the future law-makers, the decision-makers and also the people on contemporary battlefields,” he says.

Several video game manufacturers are already on board. Marek Spanel, head of Bohemia Interactive, says his company’s game, Arma 3, aims to be “an authentic military experience on the computer”, one reason the games are used by numerous military organizations (for example, Australia and NATO countries including the United Kingdom and the United States) as “a very efficient method of training people”.

“When we realized there were players who fired at anything that moved, we felt this was just not right,” says Spanel. He adds that the Bohemia Interactive team introduced mechanisms to ‘punish’ players who kill non-combatants or ‘friendlies’ from their own ranks.

Hearts and minds
Not all gamers are convinced however. When the ICRC first began talking about war crimes and video games in 2011, there was an immediate backlash. Many mistakenly believed that the ICRC was pushing for ‘real-world’ prosecution of players based on their actions within the game.

“You’d think they’d have better things to do than determine whether or not shooting pixels with other pixels is a violation [of IHL],” one commentator wrote in the gaming blog Polygon.

Since then, the debate has evolved. After the ICRC clarified that it is not trying to censor games, just encourage more realistic consequences for war crimes, debate on gaming blogs took a more positive tone.

“It’s heartening to see that instead of demonizing video games, they are trying to improve games and use them for good,” wrote one.

“I’m looking forward to modern warfare [first-person shooter games] that will allow [taking] prisoners, mak[ing] moral choices, etc., instead of systematically ravag[ing] everything,” wrote another.

But still not all are convinced. “I can see their point of view and it could certainly lead to some interesting game mechanics and storytelling,’’ one gamer wrote. “Then again, video games are meant to be fun and offer an escape from reality. Having my character put in the brig [prison] half way into the mission because I accidentally clipped a civilian hit box, or the enemy was hidden in a room full of civilians, doesn’t sound like fun.”

While games are meant to be fun, war is deadly serious. As training for war — and even war itself — becomes increasingly virtual, some argue that it’s time to begin thinking about how humanitarian law applies in the virtual war-fighting environment. That’s why, according to the ICRC, states must at the very least make sure their virtual training and recruitment tools “do not permit or encourage any unlawful behaviour without proper sanctions” lest they too become implicated if war crimes are committed by soldiers trained on something developed for people just trying to have fun.

Images from Arma 3, a highly realistic first-person shooter video game used by some government armed services for training purposes. The game’s producer, Bohemia Interactive, based in the Czech Republic, is among several companies that have integrated elements of international humanitarian law into its first-person shooter video games.
Image: ©Bohemia Interactive





Image: ©Bohemia Interactive





Image: ©Bohemia Interactive




“Through these
games,  we are
addressing the  
future combatants,
the  future lawmakers,
the  decision-makers
and  also the people
on  contemporary

François Sénéchaud,