They’ve long been condemned for excessive violence and gore, but video games could also provide some teachable moments for gamers as they are blowing stuff up and killing bad guys.
Some scholars, humanitarian groups and even military officials say video and computer game makers can answer a “call of duty” to incorporate international rules of warfare and human rights into their battlefield scenarios.
Critics say some of the world’s most popular computer games allow players to commit such violations of accepted international law as shooting wounded prisoners, torturing detainees or using prohibited chemical weapons to defeat an enemy force — with no negative consequences.
“I’ve got to find something that’s going to prepare my Marines for something that many of them probably haven’t done before, and that we can’t really reproduce that they are going to feel in combat in training,” said Col. Kurt Sanger, a judge advocate and law instructor in the U.S. Marine Corps. “That’s why I think adding technology and video games and virtual reality is such a valuable tool the Department of Defense can now count on, because it can get closer to reality.”
Col. Sanger was on a panel of speakers who met this month to discuss how video games could be redesigned to address issues like the Law of Armed Conflict and the standards of international humanitarian law at the the American Society of International Law’s annual meeting in Washington.
With video and computer games now a $45 billion-plus global industry, and with a huge number of gamers among the young, members of the panel argued that video games can be a serious business — for good or ill.
“I think [people] just don’t understand how important this is,” said Gary Brown, professor of cybersecurity at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia.
Before working at the school, Mr. Brown was the head of communications and congressional relations at the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been a leading voice in arguing that human rights and the Geneva Conventions should be built into video game stories and scenarios.
One video game company, after being contacted by the Red Cross, revised its game to penalize players who shoot civilians indiscriminately.
“We know a lot of military off-duty play video games, and a lot of young men and women who are likely to be recruited play video games,” Red Cross spokesman Bernard Barrett told NPR in a 2013 interview. “And it’s also a chance to sensitize the general public so they can tell their leaders, whether they be military or political, that’s not acceptable or that is acceptable.”
For the military, the laws of armed conflict are well developed, and recruits must be conditioned to obey them. Col. Sanger cites such concepts as legitimate military objectives and the use of force, distinguishing between friend and foe and diminishing unnecessary casualties or damage.
“These are the kinds of things that I would hope that the developers of video games are concentrating on to help us prepare for combat and put us in situations where, in training, we can make these choices,” the colonel said.
Seth Hudson, assistant director of the computer game design program at Northern Virginia’s George Mason University, said some game designers have already gotten the message.
“There are a few games out there that really do portray war from the other side,” he said. “There [are] also games that uphold the principles of international humanitarian law, but they’re not explicitly stated.”
He cited Activision’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.” The game’s opening features a training scenario in which players try to differentiate between enemies and civilian targets. The game also has a controversial level where players, acting as terrorists, shoot civilians in an airport terminal. Players are given multiple opportunities to skip the level without being penalized.
Mr. Hudson describes the airport level as a “blatant violation of international law,” but notes that a unique characteristic of video games is their interactivity and the ability of players to make their own decisions. In “Modern Warfare 2,” it’s possible to play the level as a terrorist without firing a single shot as the nonplayable characters do it all.
Mr. Hudson encourages developers to put these sorts of choices into games, but he believes games shouldn’t be censored for depicting violations of international humanitarian law.
“If realism is the goal of these games, with their photorealism and the sound, then the LOAC, in this case, equals opportunity.”
For the game developers themselves, there is concern that forcing them to adhere to international law and humanitarian restrictions could limit their creativity. But giving players a choice on how to play may be the key.
“Players love consequences,” said Daniel Greenberg, president of Media Rez, a Washington-based software and game development studio.
At the seminar, he played a video for the audience set to the “1812 Overture” that shows multiple examples of war crimes being committed in “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” including the destruction of property, the capture of religious buildings, landmark destruction, the use of outlawed weapons, killing civilians, the deployment of poisonous gas and more.
“I’m not concerned with just how all-pervasive the violations are, but I’m concerned with how designers deal with it and how designers have the players think about what they’re doing, or not,” said Mr. Greenberg.
He said he saw no link between violent video games and real-world violence, a question that has long been debated. Nevertheless, he says that players enjoy experiencing the consequences of their actions. Even when given the ability to turn such features off, players choose to leave them on because the challenge is more fun.
Giving players choices but showing them negative consequences for excessive violence is the key to building concepts like human rights and the laws of war into even the most violent of video games.
“Consequences are vital to gameplay,” said Mr. Greenberg, “because consequences are what honor the choices of players. When players feel that their choices are being honored in the game, they love the game.”