It's Time For A War Game That Respects The Geneva Conventions

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.


    It shouldn't be enforced, but I'd love to see (for example) the next COD game to stick to these rules, and see how it turns out.

    While I understand the reasoning (desensitization etc), realism, in all it's glory (or wake up factor) has always been a mixed bag when it comes to shooters.

    I can't for the life of me remember what game it was, or maybe I'm just imagining it, but in all honesty 1-2 bullets would drop someone (not kill them) and render them ineffective, where's the play in that?

    You also have to consider other factors such as;

    - Movement impairment depending on where you have been shot
    - Do you include realistic screaming of the shot victim?
    - Does a medic have to be with said victim for a longer time frame to "heal" them, or in any event make the decision that said victim is not savable and is left to die

    It can go on...

    The point I'm making is, no one, (well possibly sadists etc) would actually enjoy playing a game along those lines. While the Geneva convention (vaguely stated below) covers the following, how would you enforce it?

    wounded or sick fighters
    prisoners of war
    medical and religious personnel

    Are said to not be involved in "direct" conflict, but if anyone's ever seen actual battle, this will occur.

    Such a "law" or restriction on a video game would undoubtedly kill an entire genre.

    Realism has it's place, laws have their place IRL, but the Geneva convention playing a major role in a shooter/war game would only cripple the experience.


      The only game I could think of that even comes close to touching on this subject would Rainbow 6 - Patriots after the interview Kotaku conducted with the player deciding on civilian deaths etc.

      CoD - "No Russian" also comes to mind, but that's part of the plot, it's not a war, it's a terrorist act, terrorists don't adhere to the Geneva Convention now do they?

      This will open Pandora's box.

    “Thus, the line between the virtual and real experience becomes blurred and the game becomes a simulation of real life situations on the battlefield,”

    Um, not it's not. It's a fantasy. ITS. A. GAME.

    Please, people. PLEASE.

    It was only 13 years ago that we got a realistic depiction of Normandy in film.

    Just sayin'.

    I always try and follow the conventions when I play war games. I think it makes it more fun and I get annoyed when the game forces me to break them. Though in the No Russian level I made a point to shoot the wounded and the strays that were missed. Terrorist can do that, its part of the difference between playing a soldier and playing a terrorist or freedom fighter.

    Most war games are based on US Forces. US Forces have consistantly ignored the Geneva conventions so If you want realism, stick to the status quo.

    Dear Red Cross.........Stay the #@#@ outta my games...if you dont I will bring my game into the real world..You will have something to complain about then..

    Also does that mean the Tamagotchi i lost yrs ago...the pet starved and i going down for animal cruelty???

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