Games allowing gamers to commit war crimes

The debate about whether violence in video games has a real-world effect is an old one. I can certainly remember the consternation over the original Doom game, and I’d be willing to bet that wasn’t the first time someone had wondered whether games were having a detrimental effect on society.

Two Swiss human rights organisations, Trial and Pro Juventute, have compiled a detailed report on whether twenty popular games allow (or in some cases encourage) players to violate International Human Rights Legislation during the course of play. The tests included whether the player is required to commit a prohibited action, whether non-player characters (NPCs) do, or whether the player is permitted to act illegally without sanction. Prohibited actions include shooting injured soldiers, firing on a protected building (e.g. church or mosque), torture, and firing on non-combatants.

The outcome of the report is summarised on Trial’s introductory page:

The report thus recommends that game developers avoid creating scenarios that easily lead to violations of the rules regulating armed conflicts. More generally, the report underlines that, as certain games illustrate, there are means of incorporating rules that encourage the gamer to respect human rights and international humanitarian law. Such an approach should be further developed, in order to create players with a more accurate perspective of what is lawful and what is not in real armed conflict situations or law enforcement operations.

War is supposed to be fought according to certain rules, and any simulation of war should include those rules if it hopes to be accurate. But therein lies the problem for me, games aren’t necessarily supposed to be simulations, or educational tools, but entertainment. The main thrust of games development isn’t adherence to the law, but entertaining the player… and that’s a difficult tension to resolve.

Is there a moral obligation on games designers to ensure that human rights are upheld in their games? That’s a big debate, and there’s no doubt that some of the actions in games are wrong from a moral standpoint (attacking civillians in an airport, for instance) but then games aren’t meant to be moral teachers any more than movies or novels are.

In the end, this is a debate that’s going to rumble on for a long, long time. I can see the point of the report, and agree with some of it… I’m just not sure that games will ever reach the stage Trial and Pro Juventute want them to because, at a basic level, that’s not what games are for.

I do want to end on a light note, though… One of the reasons a character might commit human rights violations is so that we know how evil they are! It gives the story purpose if your mission is to “stop the bad man”. But are there better ways to distinguish the “goodies” from the “baddies”? Enjoy this clip from Mitchell and Webb about that very subject :)

What do you think of the report? Should games allow players to take morally dubious actions? Should they portray such actions in NPCs? Do you have another point to make? Let us know in the comments!

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Comments

  1. tylerdurdev says:

    Perhaps we should let the children (and adults) that play these games realize some simple facts of life. Sure, games do allow you to shoot injured combatants, and your own teamates. But does that mean that the Geneva and Human Rights accords are not active in the game?
    In real, actual warfare, does the existence of Human Rights Provisions physically stop any human being from doing these things? No! Not at all! The only thing that stops a soldier from doing so is his own though process, and his own self-control. Are we denied either of these things while playing a video-game?
    The problem that so many people are having with video games is being stated in a very biased way, such as saying the games “allow players to violate the rules that regulate armed combat.”
    Why can't they state the truth, and just say how games are “allowing players an unrivaled level of realism?”
    Humans have been ignoring the hypocritical rules they set forth to regulate armed combat since they were first established. That trend isn't going to stop any time soon, and if you really want games to stop portraying the world realistically, perhaps you should also lobby to have enemies replaced with plush dolls, wielding guns that shoot water, because humans have written down laws against killing each other for a much longer period of time. Foolish ignorant hypocrisy.

  2. Thanks Thyler – you're quite right that the major control in war is the soldier's own thought processes and self-control! I guess because the research has been commissioned by human rights organisations they're looking for additional checks and balances too… we often hear on the news about enquiries into friendly fire, civilian casualties, or torture and it could be argued that having penalties for those things in games would add to the realism (the report points out that some games do have penalties, and I've certainly lost missions before as a result of shooting one of my squad!)

    I still think, though, that the primary driver for games is entertainment and, while some people might complain about what is or isn't permitted in some games, if they're entertaining people will buy them. If the violence or moral choices aren't suitable for younger people, well, that's why games have an age rating, isn't it?

  3. Most forms of entertainment are morally dubious, and they are a form of escapism.

    One thing about the “Airport” Mission I do think in MW2 (which has prompted a lot of controversy) is that the way in which it's portrayed you a) don't have to pull the trigger & b) you do feel remorse in doing the act. Rather than something like – say – GTA4, you do get the feeling that what you are doing is wrong.

    Video Games (or indeed other entertainment forms) shouldn't have to meet the Geneva Convention. What about past films such as – say – Rambo? Would they get remade to meet the convention?

    I don't think games or entertainment should follow any human rights codes in my eyes, after all, what are technically doing is manipulating a bunch of pixels to give the appearance that polygons that resemble human beings are moving to appear like they are dead.

    To borrow a phrase – no humans being were ever harmed in the playing of video games.

  4. Attis13 says:

    I personally feel that the big game that people are raging about (Modern warfare 2)… That story mimics real life. The C.I.A. seriously have engaged in all manner of attacks, instigating wars and skirmishes, and dealing in black ops. They answer to no one it seems, and MW2 merely shows that perceived reality. MW2 however does give the option to turn down the graphic violence, and to skip that scene entirely. people can chose either to kill the civvies, or they can go on until the police arrive and start fighting. looking at it from the outside, yeah, you're engaging in terrorist activities, but we the gamers know that it's an integral part of the story. it's not a pleasant part, but it is important none the less.

    I personally feel games should have the option of reducing the violence, and ignoring certain parts that are graphic. they're already rated, and any parent getting their kids games are at fault if they ignore those ratings. Anything more becomes too much control which would stagnate the field.

  5. Attis13 says:

    I personally feel that the big game that people are raging about (Modern warfare 2)… That story mimics real life. The C.I.A. seriously have engaged in all manner of attacks, instigating wars and skirmishes, and dealing in black ops. They answer to no one it seems, and MW2 merely shows that perceived reality. MW2 however does give the option to turn down the graphic violence, and to skip that scene entirely. people can chose either to kill the civvies, or they can go on until the police arrive and start fighting. looking at it from the outside, yeah, you're engaging in terrorist activities, but we the gamers know that it's an integral part of the story. it's not a pleasant part, but it is important none the less.

    I personally feel games should have the option of reducing the violence, and ignoring certain parts that are graphic. they're already rated, and any parent getting their kids games are at fault if they ignore those ratings. Anything more becomes too much control which would stagnate the field.

  6. @rhys and @attis – I always try to reply to the comments on a blog, but while looking at your comments I can only think, “I agree”… and that's a rubbish reply.

    Nonetheless, I agree :)

  7. I've read some pretty disturbing books… books that portray some deep mature themes, abuse, rape and the kind of stuff that if you'd experience first hand, would have some personality effects on you for sure. Reading those works helps to prepare the mind and shape opinions on different aspects of life while entertaining you at the same time.

    Games are no different… from World War 2 to space aliens, stalking, murder and street gangs, etc it's just another form of experiencing events just like in books. Unlike books though games are a pretty new media, still evolving and trying to find it's place. It needs to reach a point where it's not so crude (scaring off parents) and more sophisticated… but surely signs of that are evident.

    Give games some time…a couple years to perfect it's form!

  8. Thanks for that – I'm sure you're right. Once games are more accepted as a serious art/storytelling/educational form a lot of this will just go away, and the game companies themselves will start to adapt a bit too.

    Cheers for commenting.

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