Learning the Rules of War from Video Games

Guest Post by Eric C. Sigmund*

As a young child, I spent countless hours playing Jane’s AH-64D Longbow, a military simulator that allowed players to fly combat missions in Apache helicopters. Prior to each mission, players would be briefed on the mission objectives and anticipated enemy forces, coordinate flight paths of allied units, and select the armaments most suitable for their particular mission. It was through this game that I first became familiar with military tactics and technology. Like countless other millennial gamers, I knew about hellfire missiles long before the emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles made them news-worthy.

Last month the American Red Cross, in partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the American Society of International Law, hosted Targeting the Laws of War with Video Games. The interactive event explored how video games could promote international humanitarian law (IHL) and featured three industry leaders who discussed topics ranging from the integration of IHL norms into games simulating warfare to how socially conscious games can inspire change in attitudes and behaviors to censorship and freedom of speech protections.

Pursuant to its Congressional Charter, the American Red Cross runs educational programs to increase awareness about IHL and to strengthen the rule of law. The American Red Cross believes that video games offer a unique opportunity to educate a wide audience about this body of law in an engaging manner. The educational potential of the $93 billion video games industry is immense. A recent Entertainment Software Association Annual Report found that the average age of gamers is 31-years old and that the gender demographic is almost equally split between men and women. The proliferation of mobile technology and the development of new generations of platforms has increased access to games and demand for new, more sophisticated games.

Games are also increasingly realistic. Designers of large box-office wartime “first-person shooters,” - a genre of games which allows players to experience combat through the eyes of a character they control - often consult with military professionals to make gameplay more closely mirror reality. Last year, this genre accounted for an estimated 20% of all video game sales by unit. Through these games, players learn immense amounts of information, even if a game is not designed for an educational purpose. As with the old Longbow simulator of my childhood, the move towards creating ever more realistic environments reinforces this tendency as players become acquainted with military tactics and weaponry through repetition of gameplay.

One theme of last month’s event was how video games can depict violations or compliance with IHL. In many first-person shooter war fighting simulators, players witness or themselves perform acts which, if committed in real life, would constitute violations of the law, including the indiscriminate killing of civilians, using prohibited weapons, or torturing enemy fighters (viewer discretion is advised). Often times, gameplay continues with players receiving no sanction for these acts. Other games however, even those within the same series, do incorporate in-game punishment of players who commit these same acts. In some instances, players may be ordered by superiors not to perform certain unlawful acts. In other cases, players may fail a mission for killing protected persons. Some game designers have also consciously removed civilians from battlefields to prevent players from killing them.

In one unique example, the writers of Spec Ops: The Line utilized stylistic mechanisms and game architecture to cause players to disassociate with characters after having repeatedly witnessed or committed unlawful acts. Most often, however, when players experience consequences for their acts, sanctions are exacted without reference to the real-world rules that make a choice “illegal”. Of course, legal infractions committed by characters in games are not violations of the law in real life, nor should they be treated as such. The Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that video games are protected speech. The American Red Cross does not call for punishment of players in any form, nor can video games be fit into a “good games” versus “bad games” dichotomy. Like film and television, video games are fictitious dramatic environments which require suspension of disbelief. The elimination of “bad” choices would not only be unrealistic, but would also close the space for education. The main concern here is that players may become desensitized to unlawful acts and treat them as commonplace or even acceptable, furthering the ignorance of the laws of war. For the American Red Cross, the main objective is to explore creative ways to use video games of all types to raise awareness about IHL in an enjoyable and engaging way.  

Take for example, Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War, which explores the lives of characters from vastly different walks of life thrust into World War I.  This has quickly become one of my favorite games. Unlike many other games of armed conflict, players of Valiant Hearts rarely engage in war fighting. Instead, this puzzle-based game introduces players to the human consequences of war through challenging exercises. In addition to educating gamers about World War I with the use of informational pop-ups during gameplay, a compelling narrative creates a connection with each character’s story, bringing war to life through shared experiences and exposing players to the consequences of war on combatants and civilians.

Other games created with the primary purpose of educating players about IHL already exist. Prisoners of War, created by the Nobel Peace Movement, educates players about the Third Geneva Convention, the rights of prisoners of war and the work of the Red Cross global network. Prisoners of War utilizes a mixture of quizzes, constructive feedback, and a touch of humor to engage the player and reinforce important lessons. Placed in the role of a military officer responsible for operating a prisoner of war camp, the player learns about essential protections and rights of captured combatants. They must utilize the text of the Third Geneva Convention to design and build a camp which complies with the requirements of the law, classify persons who may be held in the camp, and make difficult decisions about the treatment and care of prisoners.

The American Red Cross looks forward to continuing its constructive engagement with game writers, designers, publishers, and players to tackle contemporary challenges. Most recently, we partnered with Electronic Arts to create a game modification which allows players of Sim City to buy a Red Cross disaster relief kit. With this kit players can construct a Red Cross chapter equipped with emergency response vehicles and tents to care for those affected by disaster.  This partnership has made it possible for the American Red Cross to strengthen its disaster preparedness and response programs in a cutting-edge fashion. We believe that with an open mind and a bit of creativity, gamers may become the next champions of IHL awareness.  

* Eric C. Sigmund is a Legal Advisor for the International Humanitarian Law program at the American Red Cross.  

Explore this topic:Video and Q&A: Video games get real Article in the International Review of the Red Cross: Beyond the call of duty - Why shouldn't video game players face the same dilemmas as real soldiers? NPR interview: Red Cross Wants Video Games To Get Real On War Crimes Make arma not war: New video game contest promotes respect for health care personnel and facilities