International Humanitarian Law Does Not Prohibit Shooting Locusts, Brutes, and Infected: Why Game Developers Should Stop Being Lazy and Stop Using War Crimes in Lieu of Plot

Via Opinio Juris, a Swiss NGO has produced a report on the promotion of violations of international humanitarian law in video games. [PDF] This is a subject that’s actually bothered me before, and I am glad to see someone giving it some serious thought. Not only is the report’s game-by-game analysis of possible international law violations fascinating, but I’m completely on board with the authors’ stated purpose:

The goal is not to prohibit the games, to make them less violent or to turn them into IHL [International Humanitarian Law] or IHRL [International Human Rights Law] training tools. The message we want to send to developers and distributors of video games, particularly those portraying armed conflict scenarios, is that they should also portray the rules that apply to such conflicts in real life, namely IHRL and IHL. We would thus like to propose the producers to incorporate the essential rules of IHL [obligations].

First person shooters are pretty much the only game type I seriously play, but as a general rule, I don’t play FPS games that involve hunting down and killing other humans. My avoidance of them is due to a variety of factors: in part due to a dislike for the game concept, in part due to personal squeamishness, and in part due to an inability to suspend disbelief enough to become immersed in a game when I’m busy murdering people left and right. I would never advocate censorship of video games, but I would love for developers to be more aware of their games’ incidental promotion of war crimes, and to see new games incorporate into gameplay some of the real considerations involved in armed conflict, including compliance with humanitarian law.

As it stands today, many games treat war so callously and so unrealistically that they are not only offensive, they are also just plain bad and boring to play. I remember Army of Two, which is discussed unfavorably in the NGO article, being particularly nasty. Aside from the gameplay being laughably asinine (collecting “agro” so your partner turns invisible? For reals?), I had serious problems with playing two white dudes who are happily blasting their way through various hordes of Somalis and then blasting their way through various hordes of Iraqis, with the general mission guideline being “if someone looks like a native, shoot them.”

The game was even more disturbing when you realize that its timeline (1993 in Somalia, 2003 in Iraq) explicitly matches up with real life armed conflicts that the U.S. has been involved in. These games are not about theoretical, imaginary wars where only bad guys die — they are about very real events that resulted in the very real deaths of many innocent civilians.

War crime-promotion is disturbing in itself, but also bothersome in that, oftentimes, games that require the indiscriminate killing of human beings do so at the expense of having an enjoyable and nuanced story line. Pretty much all the games I do play, with one partial exception, feature clever and creative stories that avoid any need for human-on-human carnage. As a result, I can happily blast my way through Gears of War’s Locusts, Left 4 Dead’s zombies, and Halo’s Covenant troops without ever worrying about accidental humanitarian violations. (Well, okay — I sometimes feel a little guilty for mowing down terrified Grunts. But I do it anyway.)

The one FPS I enjoy that does involve killing humans is Half-Life. A lot of the shooting is directed at adorable little head crabs and antlions, which is cool by me, but the game also requires you to shoot at human Metro Cops. However, even there, thanks to the masks and voice disguisers, the CP’s are fairly easy to dehumanize. In terms of the game’s narrative, killing them does not tread as far into moral gray zones as do other human-killing games; they are an Orwellian paramilitary police force whose troops are all citizens who have become traitors to humanity. So shooting a couple in self-defense ain’t so bad, and doesn’t entail any risk of torture, summary execution, POW mistreatment, or abuse and murder of civilians.

Essentially, there is no game-based justification for why a game should allow players to engage in consequence-free war crimes. Designing games based upon a theme of wanton murder is a cheap cop-out by developers; gameplay could only benefit if violations of humanitarian law had serious in-game consequences, forcing players to either find a way to accomplish an objective without committing a war crime, or else go ahead and commit the war crime but then be forced to pay a substantial cost as a result.

I’d also point out that that even if a video game does not involve shooting humans, there is still ample room left over for indulgent, ivory tower analysis of gameplay under international law. Many important legal questions remain, such as, How is it in Halo that the UN finally got together the funding and state support necessary to create the elite UN Marine force? How do the laws of international organization responsibility apply to ODSTs? Does the treaty that formed the COG in Gears of War actually permit the forced conscription of soldiers in return for feeding their families? Not to mention, if a massive zombie invasion breaks out in an allied nation, does NATO require other states to act in collective defense of that state?

-Susan

2 thoughts on “International Humanitarian Law Does Not Prohibit Shooting Locusts, Brutes, and Infected: Why Game Developers Should Stop Being Lazy and Stop Using War Crimes in Lieu of Plot

  1. I agree. I too would like to see game developers imply more accountability for the actions of protagonists in violent video games. And don’t get me wrong, I love me my violent video games… We’re talking about improving depth and realism.

    • Trading in Army of Two for Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon was pretty much the best game exchange ever made. Which is saying a lot, because Spyro wasn’t exactly an example of awesome game design. I still want my gamer points for that, dammit.

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