It’s no secret that violence in video games has been a source of concern to many for some time now. In addition to media watchdogs, family values groups, and consumer advocates, there are those who would claim that the proliferation and realistic nature of gore and violence in gaming is partly to blame for things like the school shootings at Columbine High, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook Elementary. And yet, after years of polarized debate, there seems to be no solid evidence tying the two together.
And in a move which is sure to polarize it even further and annoy the hell out of some gamers, a recent report from two Swiss Human-Rights organizations has gone a step further in asking for an end to video game violence. According to the report, released by Trial and Pro Juventute, there are some video games that depict war and battle actions that in real life would violate international human rights laws. In short, it is possible to commit war crimes in video games, a fact which has both groups worried about the message this sends.
For the sake of research, the two groups selected 20 games – including Call of Duty 4, Metal Gear Solid 4, Far Cry 2, and several others – and had “young gamers” play the games as three attorneys watched to find actions in games that in real life would violate rules and regulations that govern armed conflict. The study attempted to determine if the acts gamers engage in while they play violent titles would “lead to violations of rules of international law, in particular International Humanitarian Law (IHL), basic norms of International Human Rights Law (IHRL), or International Criminal Law (ICL).”
After evaluating the 20 games, the group found that in many cases, “shooter” games failed to take into consideration international humanitarian law. In a statement, they expressed their conclusions as follows:
“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. At least a few games punish the killing of civilians or reward strategies that aim to prevent excessive damage.”
In particular, Call of Duty 4 was pretty hard hit for its violations of many rules which any army would consider standard ROE. For example, the game violates several human-rights laws by allowing gamers to:
“attack civilian buildings with no limits in order to get rid of all the enemies present in the town who are on roof tops, open areas of the town, squares featuring statues, etc. Under IHL, the fact that combatants/fighters are present in a town does not make the entire town a military objective.”
Similarly, they took issue with the scene in which the games villain, Al-Asad is beaten for information and then executed once you are finished with him:
“[the] beating of Al-Asad amounts to torture or at least inhuman treatment, which are prohibited in any context, under any circumstances, whether in peace time or during armed conflict situations. Killing him amounts to an extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary execution as it falls outside the context of any legal framework.”
Similar evaluations were given to other games the groups evaluated. Naturally, they were quick to say that their study was not intended to “prohibit the games, to make them less violent or to turn them into IHL or IHRL training tools.” Instead, they say they want to work with developers to ensure that in the future, their games observe real-life human-rights laws.
In keeping with this, they recommended that developers make it clear to gamers that in any circumstance, human-rights violations cannot be allowed, even in a game setting. It also requested that, going forward, developers adhere to international human rights laws when they depict war or battle in a game. Ultimately, they hoped that their study would act as a sort of wake-up call for game developers to consider the kind of message they are sending to young people:
“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 as specific elements in the course of the game. 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.”
Personally, I think it’s a good thing they steered away from COD: Modern Warfare 2 and 3, where far worse violations take place. In the immediate sequel to MW, players have the option of taking part in a mass shooting in the Moscow Airport, where you are required (as an undercover member of a terrorist squad) to gun your way through civilians and security guards in order to advance the story. Can you say sicko shit?! Seriously, Infinity Ward, what the hell were you thinking?!
But alas, the question is one we all need to ask ourselves. These human rights groups specifically chose video games instead of movies because of their interactive nature and the fact that gamers are not mere passive observers, but active participants in the simulated violence they are witnessing. So really, does it make a difference that in this context, a person is seeing the death and destruction and war crimes from a 1st person POV? Or is this simply a case of more gratuitous entertainment that no one sane human being would try to emulate?