Despite its inherent brutality, war has rules. Laws of war have been around in one form or another since biblical times. They govern the treatment of prisoners of war, the expediency of death on a battlefield. Could they, should they also pertain to the depiction of virtual war in video games?
That's the question the International Committee of the Red Cross found themselves debating last week. Mandated under the Geneva Conventions to protect the victims of international and internal armed conflicts, the committee discussed the notion of whether the Geneva and Hague conventions should be applied to the fictional recreation of war in video games. If they agree those standards should be applied, the committee says they may ask developers to adhere to the rules themselves or "encourage" governments to adopt laws to regulate the video game industry.
The committee declined to talk about the outcome of that discussion, held during this week's 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva, Switzerland, saying it is too early to share their views publicly.
While I disagree with any idea of having Freedom of Speech constrained by laws or regulations, the idea of creating games more closely tied to the realities of war is hard to simply dismiss.
Call of Duty is one of the biggest gaming franchises in history. Its annualised depiction of war does on some level trivialise the real wars fought around the world. The single-player campaign, while a more directed experience, is at best a Michael Bay action movie. The multiplayer sessions, the ones that people log thousands of hours of playing rinse-and-repeat games of essentially tag with guns, turns war into sport. That doesn't mean it's wrong, it's entertainment, but it does strip away the potential of a very powerful medium for expression.
Does the interactive nature of video games mandate a greater responsibility upon those that make those games?
Randy Pitchford, founder of Gearbox Software, maker of the Brothers in Arms games, doesn't think so.
"If suddenly we decide that when a person interacts with expression that we should put rules and limits on those things, then we'll need to put all hobbies on the table," he said. "The interactive component of video games is not unique to the video game hobby — it is true of nearly all hobbies.
"We tend not to legislate information or opportunity. But we do legislate behaviour."
While the immersive, interactive experiences of playing a video game doesn't mandate a greater responsibility upon those that make games. It does provide greater opportunity.
Games can be purely entertainment. They can rely on the over-the-top explosions and gunfights of a summer blockbuster. But there's also room for war games with a point. What about more games that deal with friendly fire, or post-traumatic stress disorder or the inherent difficulty of a life-and-death battle hampered by the conventions of humanitarian law? It isn't always necessary. Not all games need to have a deeper meaning, but exploring these things could provide a more varied experience for gamers, and more grist for thought.
In 2007, Geneva-based TRIAL published a report examining whether and to what extent international humanitarian law is respected in computer and video games. TRIAL, an organisation that helps with international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, won a prize from The Forum for Human Rights in Lucern for the report.
In it the group looked at the actions of players and non-players in 19 games. They did the study not to prohibit the games, make them less violent or turn them into international humanitarian law training tools, but to raise public awareness among developers and publishers.
The group decided to look at video games and not literature, film or television, because of the interactivity of video games, because the person playing the game is taking an active role in performing some actions.
"Thus, the line between the virtual and real experience becomes blurred and the game becomes a simulation of real life situations on the battlefield," according to the report. The conclusion the group came to is that it would be easy for developers to incorporate international humanitarian laws into games.
That the Red Cross sees video games as something not only relevant and adult, but as a way to deal with serious topics in serious ways is an important moment for gaming as a medium of expression.
More game makers should answer that challenge and incorporate moments in games, especially war games, that go beyond evoking reaction with bombastic jingoism, and deliver the sort of insight worthy of this blossoming medium.
Well Played is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Feel free to join in the discussion.