Do Video Games Allow Virtual War Crimes?

Video games don't respect humanitarian laws, according to a study of virtual 'war crimes' in contemporary shooters like Modern Warfare 2 and Army of Two, and whose results, say researchers, are 'as deflating as reality'. Swiss human rights groups Pro Juventute and TRIAL ("track impunity always") chose to analyze video games and not literature or film, which they view as 'passive' mediums, compared with 'shooter games, [in which] the player has an active role in performing the actions'. What's more, says the report, games are used as military training tools and set during present-day conflicts, 'thus illustrating the realism these games have now achieved'.

20 video games, including titles like 24 (The Game), Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, and Metal Gear Solid 4, were analyzed by 'specialists' in international humanitarian law and graded according to perceived breaches, such as destruction of civilian property, civilian deaths, destruction of religious buildings, cruel or tortuous treatment of others, and direct attacks against civilians. On the basis of the results, the report recommends that game developers avoid creating scenarios that 'easily lead to violations of the rules regulating armed conflicts' and that 'there are means of incorporating rules that encourage the gamer to respect human rights and international humanitarian law'.

I've read through the report (it's available as a PDF direct from TRIAL) and to be fair, it's not as armband-flashing as it sounds. The study admits 'little research exists on whether, if they were committed in real life, violent acts in games would lead to violations of rules of international law'. It also makes clear that its aims are merely to 'raise public awareness', not to 'prohibit the games, to make them less violent or to turn them into IHL or IHRL training tools'. It's basically trying to spotlight what it views as an important creative disparity while distancing itself from groups whose critiques of gaming--whether informed by academic research or no--stem more from ideological than scientific precepts.

That said, the report has a few significant flaws. For starters, it labels literature a 'passive' medium, comparable in this instance to film and television. But film and television render non-abstract imagery (generally speaking) that requires minimal "decoding" activity on the part of viewers to receive its basic messages. Literature, by contrast, is a medium that depends on one's ability to decode abstract signs on paper that represent people, places, ideas, etc., without recourse to pictorial images. Literature on that basis constitutes an active medium, requiring that readers make conceptual choices and dictate (reflexively or no) the details that determine how a given scene plays out. All literature requires active choice, in other words. That the report fails to recognize this doesn't bode well for its assumptions about the dynamics of creating and 're-creating', much less developers, video games, and players.

The report also refers to these games as 'simulations of real life situations on the battlefield', a misleading claim if we read 'simulation', as I do, to mean something that either is, or strives to be, as close as possible to the real thing.

It may sound counterintuitive, but we know games actually aren't and don't. The artificially intelligent characters and player avatars representing human players in multiplayer game situations aren't real people in 'real life' situations. They're not actually firing guns. They don't experience agony. They can't really die. The situations they're in lack the peril or menace or political consequences of their so-called 'real life' counterparts. They're designed not to be realistic intentionally.

For instance, a realistic shooter would see you dead or critically wounded after a single gunshot, as opposed to the way fail states play out in any of the games surveyed, where being shot amounts to stubbing your toe and having to wait a few seconds for the pain (i.e. flashing-red blots on the screen) to subside (and even then, it's 100% pain-free!).

It's misleading, then, to state as a matter of fact that 'the line between the virtual and real experience becomes blurred and the game becomes a simulation of real life situations on the battlefield'. Says who? Was research conducted that revealed gamers couldn't tell the difference between one or the other?

What's the difference between pointing a plastic handgun at someone in a game of cops and robbers, saying "Bang, you're dead," and causing your 'victim' to playfully drop to the ground, and pointing a virtual uzi at a computer simulacrum and pulling the trigger? There are differences, to be sure, but I'm waiting for the science that suggests they amount to something harmful from the video game vantage.

The biggest problem with this report is that these perceived 'violations' of international humanitarian laws in the games analyzed either harm players in some way, or confuse their understanding of said laws. The report begs the question, in other words, by applying real life standards to fictional, absurdly unrealistic situations.

If anything, the report comes across as an indictment of narrative frivolousness, i.e. situations absurd to the point of mangling dramatic import or trivializing certain fail states. Bad storytelling, in other words. Just say that, then, instead of implying (if not explicitly stating) that anyone who plays these games may be engaging in virtual war crimes.

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