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War Crimes in Video Games Draw Red Cross Scrutiny


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War Crimes in Video 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 organization of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and has since been awarded three Nobel Peace Prizes, isn't the first organization to look into whether video and computer games should operate free of international humanitarian law.

The idea to analyze whether video and computer games operate in a free legal zone, was initially an idea of TRIAL, a Geneva-based organization 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), torturing and using weapons that inflict unnecessary injury. While the group said they weren't surprised by their findings, since 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 since 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 trivialization 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 proposal 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."

Well, this is certainly an interesting take on an age old debate.

How the Red Cross can theorize that making virtual war "nice" will enable civilians on the outside looking in to perceive it in the context of a pro-humanitarian struggle is beyond me.

Virtual environments allow for the sort of abstraction that isn't possible on a live battlefield. True, while you can penalize a someone for friendly fire or harming civilians, in the eyes of a gamer however, the Geneva convention will always be an afterthought in the rush to achieve what matters most - maximizing entertainment value for their time.

Further, the exclusion of atrocities does a disservice to gamers and developers alike who demand historical accuracy. Would the Red Cross have the Eastern Front in WWII be sanitized? From all accounts it was anything but.

Also, which genres should fall under or be except from such regulations? Sci-fi? Survival horror? Or just historical? War has depicted in all of these categories - either as the main focus or as a backdrop.

Lastly, mandating the aims of the Geneva Convention on gaming, depending on how it is implemented, deprives everyone from the one single factor that separates gaming from other passive forms of entertainment: freedom in the decision making process. It should be left to the game producers to set the limits on player interaction; not an international body whose apparatus is far removed from the day to day concerns of entertainment industries.

My 2 cents.

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Most people - including most soldiers* - are horribly, horribly misinformed about the Geneva Conventions. Improving that can only be a Good Thing.


* For example there is - or was - an official US Army viseo on Youtube last year, one of a series explaining what different units do. This particular one was on Para Jumpers in Afghanistan. Those are the medical teams who jump in after an a/c has gone down, secure the area and rescue the downed crew. The narrator pointed out they were armed, in spite of the Geneva Conventiosn saying medics aren't allowed to be armed.

That's bollocks, of course. Medics specifically are allowed to be armed. But I don't know what's worse;

1) the narrator - and everyone else who signed off on the video - not knowing that, or

2) the narrator - and everyone else who signed off on the video - just accepting that the US Amred Forces break the Geneva COnventions as a matter of routine.

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To clarify there, medics are allowed to be armed for defense. They are protected according to Geneva rules while performing their medical duties. If they use their arms offensively, it is not against the Geneva rules, it simply erases their protection as an invalid target. The para-rescue teams, which are Air Force, rather than Army, receive medical training, but it is only about half of their training, and they are considered an elite combat team, not simply medics.

Other than that I actually agree with you Jon.

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To clarify there, medics are allowed to be armed for defense. They are protected according to Geneva rules while performing their medical duties. If they use their arms offensively, it is not against the Geneva rules, it simply erases their protection as an invalid target.

Just so.

The para-rescue teams, which are Air Force, rather than Army

Yes, I undestand. I should have clarified that, although it's largely beside the point w.r.t. understanding the protections afforded by the GCs, and their limits. FWIW, I'm pretty sure the video was a US Army production.

receive medical training, but it is only about half of their training, and they are considered an elite combat team, not simply medics.

Yeah ... it seems everybody wants to have their some of their own toys in the Special Forces trainset.

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For this topic, I agree with your first sentence wholeheartedly though. I think it would be great if "gamers" had to obey the Geneva conventions..not in favor of actual rules to game makers, but it would be great if "breaking" the Geneva agreements actually carried penalties in game..so the gamer could do as he wished still, but would lose victory points, etc. As far as the Red Cross, or anybody for that matter, forcing game publishers to obey the laws of war, in a game, I think that is way too much.

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How will it work with historical simulation where there was no respect for the GCs anyway? We know that on the OstFront and in the Pacific a red cross didn't mean anything. Likewise any shooter set within the invasion of Iraq is going to inaccurate if civilains aren't killed through application of overwhelming firepower.

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I agree Aff... so I would not want it to be forced on game makers, but I do think the idea of having it in there, is a kind of good idea, if nothing else as an option...sure, you CAN blow up the whole town, but you will take hits for it...although it seems only one side really took "hits" for it in ww2, so you may be right..and also if carried to sci-fi, etc... do "human rights" even count if you are fighting lizards? lol..interesting question...

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