War Crimes In Games Draw Red Cross Scrutiny

War Crimes In Games Draw Red Cross Scrutiny

One of the world’s largest and most respected humanitarian groups in the world is investigating 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 International Committee of the Red Cross says they may ask developers to adhere to the rules themselves or “encourage” governments to adopt laws to regulate the video game industry.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is mandated under the Geneva Conventions to protect the victims of international and internal armed conflicts. That includes war wounded, prisoners, refugees, civilians and other non-combatants. The question they debated this week is whether their mandate should be extended to the virtual victims of video game wars.

During this week’s 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva, Switzerland, members of the committee held a side event to discuss the influence video games have on public perception and action.

“While the Movement works vigorously to promote international humanitarian law worldwide, there is also an audience of approximately 600 million gamers who may be virtually violating IHL,” according to the event’s description. “Exactly how video games influence individuals is a hotly debated topic, but for the first time, Movement partners discussed our role and responsibility to take action against violations of IHL in video games. In a side event, participants were asked: ‘What should we do, and what is the most effective method?’

“While National Societies shared their experiences and opinions, there is clearly no simple answer. There is, however, an overall consensus and motivation to take action.”

Reached for comment earlier this week, Alexandra Boivin, head of the Civil Society Relations Unit’s Department of International Law and Cooperation for the committee, declined to discuss their findings yet.

“Unfortunately, it is too early in the discussion to share our views publicly,” Boivin told Kotaku. “We will be posting some information on the ICRC’s website in the weeks to come, with a view to stating and explaining our interest in the topic.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which was formed in 1863 as the oldest organisation of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and has since been awarded three Nobel Peace Prizes, isn’t the first organisation to look into whether video and computer games should operate free of international humanitarian law.

The idea to analyse whether video and computer games operate in a free legal zone, was initially an idea of TRIAL, a Geneva-based organisation that helps with international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In 2007, TRIAL published a report examining whether and to what extent international humanitarian law is respected in computer and video games. The Playing By The Rules project won a prize in 2007 from the Forum for Human Rights in Lucern.

The project looked at the actions of players and non-players in 19 games, including top shooter franchises like Call of Duty, Battlefield and Rainbow 6 titles, examining whether the developers established or followed the international humanitarian laws set forth in the Geneva and Hague conventions.

“In computer and video games, violence is often shown and the players become ‘virtually violent,'” according to the study. “However, such games are not zones free of rules and ethics. It would be highly appreciated if games reproducing armed conflicts were to include the rules which apply to real armed conflicts. These rules and values are given by international humanitarian law and human rights law. They limit excessive violence and protect the human dignity of members of particularly vulnerable groups.”

The study found that those rules are often not taken into consideration within game development. Violations they found in games included shooting unarmed combatants (technically prisoners of war), torture and using weapons that inflict unnecessary injury. While the group said they weren’t surprised by their findings, as games are meant to be entertainment, they said they were surprised by how absent the rules were in games.

“The practically complete absence of rules or sanctions is nevertheless astonishing: civilians or protected objects such as churches or mosques can be attacked with impunity, in scenes portraying interrogations it is possible to torture, degrade or treat the prisoner inhumanely without being sanctioned for it and extrajudicial executions are simulated,” they wrote.

They also pointed out that as a few games do punish the killing of civilians or reward strategies that aim to prevent excessive damage, that including such rules is possible.

Their recommendations?

“It is regrettable that game producers hardly ever use this possibility to creatively incorporate the rules of international law or even representatives of such rules (such as the ICRC or the international criminal courts etc.) as specific elements in the course of the game,” they wrote. “Pro Juventute and TRIAL call upon the producers of computer and video games to use their strong creativity and innovation for this purpose. It would mean a wasted opportunity if the virtual space transmitted the illusion of impunity for unlimited violence in armed conflicts.”

The purpose of this week’s examination of the topic by the International Committee of the Red Cross was to present the committee’s position on the trivialisation of international humanitarian law violations in video games and discussing it with their wider members.

“In line with the Conference’s aim of strengthening IHL, the event aims at achieving a common understanding of the problem and outlining a course of action whereby the Movement could help reduce these ‘virtual’ — yet very realistic — violations of IHL,” according to the group. “One possible course of action could be to encourage game designers/producers to incorporate IHL in the development and design of video games, while another could be to encourage governments to adopt laws and regulations to regulate this ever-growing industry.”

While the International Committee of the Red Cross is a private humanitarian institution, the Geneva Conventions have given the committee the authority and mandate to oversee international humanitarian law.

Historically, the committee works quietly and behind the scenes to influence policy makers and push for change, often to great effect.

Reached for comment today, the Entertainment Software Association said they hadn’t yet seen the details of the committee’s findings, though they were aware of the meeting.

“We cannot comment on the merits or specifics of the International Committee of the Red Cross because we have not discussed this with them directly or seen any specifics of their meeting,” said Rich Taylor, Sr. VP for Communications and Industry Affairs, Entertainment Software Association. “However, we are immovably committed to developers’ rights for creative freedom and in achieving their artistic vision.”


  • They should watch an episode of 24 sometime… or read any piece of fiction about war…

    Humans are silly creatures, indeed.

      • Yeah, it seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it haha

        my point is that if they want to worry about depicting such things as having no or little consequences, there are a lot of other things they could be going after 😛

  • While I will concede the point that videogames depict war unrealistically, and creating a game with some of the real-world constraints built in would be interesting, this is a terrible, terrible suggestion. Why are videogames only, and the only, responsible for ‘teaching children’ ?

    I mean that sentence both ways. First, if videogames are ‘only’ for teaching children, they suddenly acquire this ethical baggage where we have to make sure kids are only exposed to whatever powerful people think is morally acceptable (or just enough so they get re-elected etc). I guess since videogames are obviously not art, then they must not be a part of creative expression, so we have to regulate them!

    On the other hand, it seems like videogames are focused on to the exclusion of other media. Why is it only a problem for games to not show the Geneva conventions? What about James Bond or any cop show you care to mention? How many times do they show the paperwork being filled out after a police officer fires his gun? Or the counselling they receive when someone is killed? Why are videogames the only place where this stuff is important?

    Maybe that second point is sort of an illusion because I really only read videogame news like this, perhaps there are lobbies for it in other media, willing to consider that possibility.

    • No People are responsible for many deaths. If books are responsible for many deaths then spoons are responsible for making me fat.

      • Difference is a spoon won’t tell you how to live your life whereas a religious text will dictate to you how you should behave.

        Given that – many people take it far too literally and do exactly that.

        • Well, read it (and I mean read it, not select bits from atheist websites that you like), and you’ll see it doesn’t tell you to kill people, but instead to give everything you have and live for the rest of your life as a pauper while helping others.

          Yes, that’s actually what it says. Very, very few people realise that though, and it may have something to do with the first thousand pages of background..

        • And most of them give advice so broad and contradictory that you can more or less claim anything you want and correctly claim it’s backed up by scripture (interpreted in the way you want).

          The broad thrust of, say, Jesus’ teachings was along the lines of ‘be tolerant, love everyone, give everything to the poor’. I understand Mohammed was similar. Funny how that doesn’t translate to reality.

          • The bible was written by many different people over a long period of time. So while the gospels may preach tolerance, the rest of the bible is full of spiteful wrath and hate. Then Christfags come along and say that the gospels overrule everything else because that’s the only way Christfags have of dealing with the many, many contradictions that are in the bible. There is no invisible man in the sky.

      • It’s an easy scapegoat, and if people literally followed the main gist of the bible (yes, I know old testament etc etc trolling), everyone would be living in a communist state with people farming and living day to day.

        But that’s completely unrealistic and people will twist anything they can to suit their purpose. That includes detractors like Wolf above.

  • How about Red Cross being scrutinised and investigated for their funding and supporting of the worlds largest paedophilia ring?

  • I’m pretty sure the red cross has the same problem with media generally, but regardless this is an interesting point. One of my problems with the campaign in CoD was that I’m pretty sure Soap is a war criminal himself – I recall one level where they make an unsanctioned secret incursion, dressed a civilians and engage against civilian criminals. I’m poetry sure there’s a lot wrong with that, but their still treated as the hero. I have the same problem with 24, which has to be the most right-wing show ever made.

  • It’s a game. Games aren’t real. Actions in games often depict worlds where such rules never existed. FFS, I mean, it’s like they want to try and enforce their rules to a game of Dungeons and Dragons.

    I hope the developers just tell them to stick it up their collective arses and go back to making the games

    • If I were a developer my immediate response would be to make a game where the sole objectives are blowing up school buses full of handicapped children and murdering hookers with blunt force trauma. Just to watch all the pussies rage.

  • *** BREAKING NEWS ***

    World renown adventurer, Link, has just been charged with War Crimes for the mass genocide of the Octoroc. Both factional races, red and blue, were mercilessly exterminated by the sword wielding “adventurer” on his many sojourns.

    The case is now before the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. More updates to follow shortly.

    • Link is linked with the mysterious nintendo corporation which is associated with the notorious endangered animal poachers, the Mario brothers.

  • Concern of treatment of fictional characters is the most absurd thing I have ever heard. To look into something like this when so many real people are suffering is an insult.

  • I can play a ridiculously bizzare or violent game for hours, turn it off, and still cry when I read a disturbing news headline, or see something horrible happen to a person. It’s called distinguishing reality from fiction. If schools taught kids a little better these days, it wouldn’t be an issue.

    • I think there’s some difference – of course anyone can distinguish between a video game and reality. But if most of your domain knowledge about war comes from unrealistic fiction, it’s hard for the average non-warfare participant to know what’s appropriate and what’s not in a war zone. Sure, you know that MW4 is ridiculous and fantasy, but if you don’t know anything about the actual laws of war, MW4 is going to somewhat bias your expectations one way or the other.
      It’s like, imagine that all you’ve ever seen about basketball has been watching YouTube clips of the Harlem Globetrotters and playing NBA Street. Of course, you know what you’ve watched are totally unrealistic, but you’re still going to have very little idea of what’s a foul should you ever watch a real game. You know that you probably can’t light the ball on fire, but maybe bouncing the ball off the other guy is totally legit? Likewise, if your exposure to war is only through shooters, you know that you’re not supposed to hurt civilians, but you might not know that it’s against the law to deface a dead enemy’s body.

      • +1 to dismiss that entertainment media does not effect our world views means that you are already part of the braishwashed masses. To say that it does not effect you is fine, but there’s so many more people that are not as intelligent as you that it will.

  • This would make an interesting school assignment, sure, but I’m not sure it’s something the Red Cross should be spending their time on.

  • Wow, this is a lot of overblown defensiveness here in the comments. It sounds to me like the IRC is saying, ‘You know, most people these days don’t actually go to war, but a lot of people play video games which are based on real-life war (say, Modern Warfare). Sure, they’re games, but it probably wouldn’t be that hard to include elements of the Laws of Land Warfare, it just seems like very few games even try to bring that up.’
    Contrast with something super-fantasy based like GTA – Most people have lived in a city or town, and know that GTA is ridiculous. However, most people haven’t been to war, and likely aren’t familiar with the laws of war. With war movies and books relatively unpopular compared to MW and the like, it’s hardly a stretch to think that large parts of the population are receiving most of their information about war through the video game medium. If that medium consistently ignores gross humanitarian issues, then it has a definite power to shape public opinion about how important or valid the laws of war are.
    Case in point, ’24’ and torture has been brought up a number of times. The US Army, which recognizes that torture is highly counterproductive (turns out people make up all sorts of stuff to avoid more torture), has found that shows like 24 have resulted in Army recruits more willing to torture and think that it’s OK (http://voices.yahoo.com/24s-torture-methods-criticized-military-207876.html).
    By all means, the calls for regulation are overblown, but I doubt that slightly more realistic depictions of rules of engagement and urban combat would have a detrimental effect on games – it seems far more likely that designers just don’t really put much thought into these issues, and should probably be strongly encouraged to consider them in the future.

    • I’d just like to second this. The Red Cross certainly shouldn’t be wasting time, money and effort on pushing for regulation here, but while their reaction is overzealous and overshooting, they really do have a valid point at the core of it – so-called ‘realistic’ war games, which spend a lot of time and money on ‘realism’ both in-game and in marketing, really should factor in a little more reality when it comes to certain kinds of weapons and rules – I’m not saying we should take away mines, flashbangs and other questionably-legal military tools and weapons, but that attention should be drawn to the questionability and morality of their usage.

    • Maybe, but you’re a reasonable individual. People in general, especially those easily misled, are not.

      The ACL is definitive proof of that. Also reader of the Telegraph. Oh, and ACA/TT viewers. Then there’s PETA supporters. Ad infinitum.

    • Excellent comments – while I don’t agree that laws are the way, it would be nice to see these games include some information which at least draw to people’s attention these rules. An interesting twist would be to penalise players who don’t obey the laws of war – a sort of “honour” rating. I mean, this would actually make a game like Battlefield more realistic, in that there would generally be consequences for a unit or soldier who committed war crimes.

      • I like this idea – I like this idea ALOT, it would be a very interensting concept indeed to incorporate such a system. I think it would be very cool to be able to view, amongst a players stats such as K/D and accuracy, just how well they followed the sanctioned rules of war

  • I have a question: Since when where there rules for wars? Yeah, genva convention is a good thing, but the thing is, only one side generally goes by those rules, so there are no real rules you can apply to war. its not like there is a referee calling off sides or fouls for using weapons that are band. Hell, Israel are trying to CHANGE one of the laws so they can’t get convicted for using a banned gas in the Gaza strip. That is how fucked shit is.

    Wars are about 1 thing: Winning. There are no good guys or bad guys. There are only winners and dead people in wars, and the winners are the ones who write the history books.

    • I have my issues with the rules of war, but they can be enforced by the Un security council. See the SERBIAN genocides for a recent example.

      Also, it does allow some types of weapons to be banned by punishing the manufacturers. Illegal weapons always find their way to the wrong hands, but at least those weapons don’t include mustard gas because the companies aren’t allowed to make them.

  • Surely there’s more important things for them to be worrying about, like actual war crimes or example. War crimes are a real issue in the world e know however I sincerely doubt that video games promotes or encourages people to commit war crimes. The vast majority of us can clearly tell the difference between fact and fiction.

  • “Violations they found in games included shooting unarmed combatants (technically prisoners of war)”

    This is actually something that bothers me in some games. Enemies that give up and run away, but you still “have” to kill them. I remember the first time I came across it in a game a few years ago, you had to kill every enemy in the area to proceed (the door was locked until they all died), but the last guy dropped his weapon and surrendered or some such. But no, the game forced me to kill him in order to proceed…

    Same thing happening in Skyrim now, they beg for surrender but my companion runs in and kills them anyway.

  • 3 points:

    1. “Human rights” violations are inherently discriminatory. There are international conventions relating to the treatment of animals, particularly threatened or endangered species. Clearly, if games need to reflect one set of international conventions, they must adhere to others, otherwise that’s unethical discriminations, and the Red Cross would be guilty of tacitly endorsing cruelty to animals in breach of such obligations.

    2. Call of Duty: Intergalactic Warfare. The aliens don’t (officially) have any international aid organisations representing them, so go nuts with that.

    3. Just set every game 6 months in the future where the major nations no longer observe the treaty conventions, or in a slightly alternative present where such conventions never existed or were recently repealed. Make it a boilerplate disclaimer underneath the piracy warning, so at least it can all be ignored in the same place.

    • Exactly, game developers are just going to “change the game” (so to speak) to make it so they no longer have to deal with the law. It’s already being done. Can’t shoot and dismember human targets? Make them zombies and it’s all ok. Can’t depict blood and gore? Make it green and everything’s ok. Can’t use the drug Morphine in your game? Just make it a fictional drug name with the same effect and everything’s ok.

      • I think they’d be ok with this – they seem concerned that people are getting the wrong idea about whats legal during warfare from these games because they’re depicting conflicts between real armies.

  • Disgusting reach for power by the Red Cross. It is a GAME. Stop fear-mongering over games, pathetically close-minded policy makers. This makes me rage.

  • If they force video game developers to stifle their creative and artistic (yes, I realise MW3 was the focus here, but bare with me) freedom to express certain ideas, or depict certain events in their games, that’s called censorship.

    I think the Red Cross should reassess their priorities since there are undoubtedly much more noteworthy things they could be spending their combined time and energy in trying to fix.

  • So this seems like a fantastic idea. Lets make a fictitious war game where every enemy encountered forces you to radio in your command then wait for 30 minutes to get a responce on wether or not you should take them out. Then, if you commit a war crime, you are thrown in the brig and forced to live out your sentence in real time. I for one would love to spend years just watching myself sit in a jail cell. Then when your char is released you are forced to get a job at McDonalds because no one will hire you due to your dishonorable discharge. Gotta love realism.

  • Dan, it isn’t just by the Red Cross, there are other groups that want this, they’re merely using the Red Cross as a front. They want to curb your violent tendencies so that you’ll be a good little sheep.

    Sorex, censorship is the idea. If they can’t make them do it by pressure or force American lawmakers to do it then they’ll foist “International Law” on us and do it that way.

    I want to know where these sheep-makers get off trying to control our thoughts, censor our actions and control what we do and see… Oh, wait, that’s the whole idea, they’re the “intelligent” people that know what’s good for you, because you’re not smart like them, so you Can’t know what is good for you, so nanny state will protect you from yourself.

  • “to present the committee’s position on the trivialisation of international humanitarian law violations in video games and discussing it with their wider members”

    Aren’t they guilty of trivializing war by imposing rules upon it and turning it into some sort of board game? This is a load of bull. This is hypocrisy.

  • I hope this goes into full effect, so the murder simulators produced for years now become illegal. I hope that the punishment for producing a murder simulator is execution of all employees behind the development of such things.

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