Swiss Study Documents War Crimes Committed in 19 Games

Illustration for article titled Swiss Study Documents War Crimes Committed in 19 Games

Two Swiss organizations have examined 19 games (including "Metal Gear Soldier 4") for their compliance with/flouting of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), and while their intent is serious, the way they hold these games to IRL IHL gets a little wacky.

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The study, "Playing By the Rules" was undertaken by Pro Juventute, a Swiss children's rights group, and Track Impunity Always (TRIAL), which is concerned with international criminal justice. Their report provides a legal analysis of the conduct enabled by the games.

Rather than play the games themselves, the two groups sent expert observers to watch serious gamers play through and then note the egregious acts they saw. Here's what they had to say about Battlefield: Bad Company.

In the scenes, there seems to be no assessment of proportionality in the attacks realized in civilian areas and we do not know, whether precautionary measures were taken to minimize civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects. However, in a real life situation, one is often confronted with similar circumstances: regular armed forces and irregular armed groups are very unlikely to give any information about the planning of the preparation of military operations to international organisations or human rights bodies. Without such information, it is difficult to establish that a military operation was not proportional, in particular whether the attacker took all the precautionary measures necessary to avoid, and in any event to minimize incidental loss or civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects."

In addition to the extensive destruction, some of the scenes portray the members of "Bad Company" taking gold and "treasures" found in the civilian houses they have just destroyed. Upon obtaining them, the players get points. These actions amount to pillage, which is strictly prohibited under IHL and thus have also been labeled as "strong". This illegal action is confirmed in one of the scenes where you can hear a member saying that "Pillaging is an old war tradition." Pillage is considered as a war crime both in international and non- international armed conflicts.

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I'm thinking that asking the goons of Bad Company to take precautionary measures for anything would be a little like talking to a cardboard box. It's also amusing to me that a basic, nonviolent scavenging mechanic rates a "strong" violation of international law (which it would be, if it occurred in real life) and is called out as a war crime.

Anyway, the study had a number of recommendations. Among them is a call for clearly defined rules of engagement.

It would be very useful if developers would incorporate more specific rules on how to conduct an operation in their games, in terms of the weapons allowed, the behaviour allowed, the military targets sought, the degree of collateral damage permitted, etc. The message of the scenes should never be that everything is allowed, or that it is up to the player to decide what is right and what is wrong. In real life, this is not the way it works.

If you want to dive into more killjoy gasbaggery about Modern Warfare, World at War and - Jesus, True Crime Streets of L.A. is in here? Who did they find to play that? Anyway, you can grab your copy of the report here [pdf.]

Fighting Fair: International Humanitarian Law As Applied to Games [Game Politics]

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DISCUSSION

I just finished reading the full paper. I guess I have a few comments.

First is that it has clearly been written by someone who is almost entirely unfamiliar, not just with violent shooters, but with videogames in general. Obviously there is nothing wrong with that per se, but in this specific case, I think the obvious ignorance about the directorial intent behind a game, or the way in which certain in-game situations are supposed to function, harms the credibility of the report.

Second is that the tone taken is somewhat peculiar inasmuch as that it seems to be taking on some kind of reformist or censorial mantle. Statements such as: "it would be recommendable to avoid putting these kinds of scenes

in video games as they could mislead players in terms of what is allowed to be done" seem to me to assume a pretty low level of capability on the part of the gamer to distinguish between reality and fiction. This is a trap that the mainstream media often fall into and it's disappointing to see that level of ignorance on display in what presents itself as a piece of academic research.

I think that the way that Rainbow Six punishes the player for inflicting civilian casualties is a good thing, but that is because of it being good game design, not because I think games have some kind of moral duty to be presented in that way. The report reads as if it assumes that the role games should be playing is educating gamers about international law, and that other gameplay or narrative concerns should be secondary. To me, that is bizarre.

But, whatever I think about the (substantial) failings of this particular report, it is attempting to address some important issues. A lot of games are violent. Few of those come anywhere near situating that violence in a realistic context, even when they might claim to be pursuing realism. We live in a world where gratuitous violence is exploited for entertainment potential all the time, but that that doesn't mean that, once in every ten (or even hundred) titles, a game can't come along with something more intelligent to say about war or about crime.

In the real world, rules of international law, and the pressures of perceived moral imperatives, act as influences on the behaviour of combatants in a manner that is often lazily caricatured, if not completely absent, in videogames. I think it is well worth asking why that is, and whether some games might be improved if efforts were made to better incorporate those kinds of themes and constraints.