War Crimes In Video Games

violent video gamesIt’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.

Doesn't inspire confidence, does it?
Doesn’t inspire confidence, does it?

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.”

violence-in-video-gamesIn 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?

Source: news.cnet.com

Video Game Review: The Modern Warfare Series

Morning all, or afternoon or evening as the case may be. Lousy time zones! Today, I thought I’d get back to my promise of reviewing video games by tackling a series I’ve been wanting to get into for some time. Like most geeks, and just about all guys, I am a fan of first person shooters. Not the violence for violence’s sake type that emerged en masse after the release of Doom, mind you, but the kind’s that used the platform creatively and intelligently.

Which is one thing I always liked about Call of Duty and similar franchises. During the early millennium, it was one of many WWII-era FPS games that sought to reenact history’s greatest war by giving players a first-person perspective on the whole thing. Over time, the depictions became more and more realistic, and embraced more theaters and battles that aren’t usually addressed in popular culture.

And after three incarnations of WWII, the makers naturally decided it was time to make a game that dealt with combat in the modern era, that took advantage of the all the recent developments in firearms, aerial drones, night vision, thermal vision, and other assorted high-tech devices. In short, they thought it would be cool to have players running around with the latest toys and shooting things up in an up-to-date simulation.

However, in this case, the designers also were required to come up with a modern storyline that would reflect the attitudes of today’s military planners and the situation we know find ourselves in. Unlike the other games, whatever story they came up with would be fictitious and speculative for the first time ever. And, in my humble opinion, this is where they were just the slightest bit weak. Sure, Modern Warfare 1, 2 and 3 do have some rather kick-ass gameplay and an intense storyline to them, but they aren’t exactly realistic.

To demonstrate why, let me get to the first game in the series…

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare:
Released in 2007, Modern Warfare was one of the critically acclaimed and well received games of all time. Whereas the Campaign Mode of the game (i.e. single player) was lauded for its intensity and immersive quality, it was the Multiplayer that really wowed critics and gamers alike. Unlike previous COD games, the additional features, such as the ability to call in air strikes and helicopters, as well as unlocking new weapons and types of camouflage, was entirely new.

In fact, GamePro magazine even compared the multiplayer aspect favorably to Halo 3, a franchise that was yet to be rivaled by anyone! And personally, I think gamers enjoyed the ability to play a game that features weapons and tactics they know to be current and real, and not lasers, BFG’s or antiquated weapons. But of course, there was far more to this game than just the gameplay, which I shall get into now…

Plot Synopsis:
The story is a familiar one, one which has been told many times over since the end of the Cold War. And for the sake of the game, it comes in two separate strands which invariably come together towards the end. In the first, Russia has fallen into a state of civil war with the rise of an ultra-nationalists front who are led by a former communists named Imran Zakhaev. He who wants to return Russia to its Soviet past,

In the second strand, a militant Salafist regime led by a man named Khaled Al-Asad has seized power in an unnamed Middle Eastern nation and is apparently being backed by the ultra-nationalist Russians who is sending them nukes. This is apparently a move on behalf of Imran Zakhaev to divert attention from his civil war, and its works!

Yes, this too is a familiar tale, the kind of thing that Israeli and US policymakers have nightmares about. But like I said, the identity of this nation is never specified. One minute things are taking place near Mecca, Saudi Arabia; the next, in Basra, Iraq. Yeah, not doing much to dispel the notion that all Arab nations are the same, dude!

And so the two threads unfold, with you playing as both the British SAS (Special Air Services), who are busy trying to stop the exchange of nukes. After a failed attempt to stop the shipment of one, you are sent to Russia to team up with with Loyalist forces and rescue a contact named Nikolai, a recurring figure in the MW series.

Things then switch over to the US perspective, where you are a Marine Lieutenant Vasquez who is part of the US invasion of the unnamed Middle Eastern nation. In the initial invasion, your Marine unit searches for Al-Asad in the capitol’s tv station, but is too late to retrieve him. As operations progress in the capitol, the warning comes in that Al-Asad has a nuke and is preparing to set it off. All units begin to evacuate, but your unit doesn’t make it out before the blast!

Back in Russia, the SAS manage to finally track down Al-Asad who appears to be hiding out in a safehouse in Azerbaijan. After working him over, he recieves a call from Zakhaev, and the SAS team leader, Captain Price, shoots Asad and explains who Zakhaev is. Apparently, he performed a “wetwork” mission against Zakhaev back in the early 90’s, shortly after the fall of Communism when Zakhaev was just another revisionist trying to get his hands on nuclear material in the abandoned town of Pripyat, Ukraine (outside of Chernobyl). In the course of the mission, Price managed to take down Zakhaev, but instead of delivering the fatal bullet, merely cost him an arm.

Now, years later, it is time to finish the job. With Al-Asad dead, Zakhaev and his forces have managed to seize a major Russian missile silo and are threatening to launch the nukes. When his son, whom the SAS try to seize in order to gain some leverage over him, commits suicide to avoid capture, he goes over the edge and orders the launch. At this stage in the game, you are now part of a joint operation between the US Marines and the SAS and your job is to storm the silo and input the countermand codes before the nukes reach the Eastern Seaboard.

Once that is done, you and your team begin to beat a hasty retreat and are pursued by Zakhaev’s men. The mission then ends with a tense final showdown where you are required to take out Zakhaev with a handgun while he and his men have you cornered and try to finish you off. The good ol’ Russian Loyalists then arrive on scene to medevac you and your friends to safety.

Good Points and Bad:
Like I said already, the gaming experience of this installment in the COD series is pretty badass. Picking up where COD: World at War left off, you have the ability to call in air strikes by “painting” targets with a designator, something that wasn’t available in the first three installments. Second, the use of modern weapons, from M4’s, SAW’s, M203s, RPG’s, AK’s, Flashbangs, Claymores, Suppressors, SPAS-12’s – the list goes on! – is quite cool. Not to mention the scene where you are able to take control of an AC-130 gunship, watching a theater of engagement from above through thermal scopes and be able to bombard targets with either a minigun, a bofors cannon, or a 105mm howitzer.

This idea, incorporating the latest in weapon’s technology, is something which every MW installment adds to in it’s own way, combining the speculative with the current and cutting edge. In this installment, they kind of kept it to the current and tried and true, but it was still fun. As a geek and guy, I was familiar with many of these pieces of kit already, thanks to years of reading up on them and watching TV programs about war. Being able to use them in a gaming environment was pretty sweet!

As for the weak stuff, well I’ve mentioned that already… For one, the story is a kind of predictable and tired one, one which the makers clearly knew the audience would buy into. For almost two decades now, fiction writers and amateur analysts have been saying that it’s only a matter of time before some Middle Eastern regime gets its hand on a thermonuclear device and tries to use it on Israel or US forces. And in every version of this scenario, it’s always Russia that gives it to them, mainly because it’s been theorized that the Russians are not in control of their stockpile of nukes or would be willing to sell them for cheap.

I’m bothered by the reiteration of this story for the simple reason that it’s both stupid and terribly cliched. It’s a well known fact that after the fall of the former USSR, Russia took great pains to make sure it got all its nukes back from its former allies and that those nukes are all accounted for and have been under lock and key for the past twenty years. What’s more, Russia is not run by total freaking morons. They know that if they tried to sell any nukes to a Middle Eastern country, or any regime for that matter, that they would be inviting sanctions, embargoes and even open war on themselves. In the wake of the Cold War economic collapse Russia went through and the rise of a privatized, investor-based economy, this is not something they can afford.

Also, with every spy agency in the world – the CIA, MI6, the Massad, and the KGB – and countless bodies like the UN, NATO,  and the Atomic Energy Commission watching them, no Russian general who might have access to the nuclear stockpile would ever be dumb enough to try and negotiate a private sale. No matter how much money was in it for them, they would know that to steal a Russian-made nuke would put them in the cross hairs of every “wetboy” (i.e. assassin-spy) on the planet! There would literally be no place in the world where they would be safe. What’s more, the idea that any Middle Eastern regime would become an instant threat if it got a nuke is also ridiculous.

Since 1992, Israel and the US have maintained the position that if Iran, Syria or any other Middle Eastern nation that has not signed a peace treaty with Israel got a nuke, they would attempt to use it. Just how stupid do they think Arab nations are? Israel maintains a stockpile of over 200 nukes and the US has one that numbers in the thousands. Once said Arab regime used this one nuke and took out a single city, they would be nuked several hundred times over, their country completely obliterated in the process. Does anyone really believe that any nation would be willing to watch all of its citizens die just for the sake of some measured revenge? I certainly hope not! The only reason why this notion is taken seriously at all is the fact that decades of inaccurate portrayals, propaganda and bigotry have led many people to believe that Arabs and Muslims are viscous, crazy, hateful people who’ll stop at nothing to kill Christians, Americans and Jews.

And yet, the fiction of this idea persists, mainly because it’s the only way writer’s like Tom Clancy can keep outputting spy novels in the post-Cold War era. His book Op Center was based on this very idea, of a Russian general who sells a nuke to some Middle Eastern terrorist for a small fortune. The plot of The Peacemaker was also built around this very same concept, and in the movie Broken Arrow it is openly said that anyone wanting nukes could just got to Russia, where they would “give you a half dozen for the price of a BMW”. Bullshit, man! If it’s such a plausible scenario, then why hasn’t it happened already? For the same reason that WWIII has not happened, and that is, once again, that no one is willing to risk total annihilation for the sake of politics or ideology.

But I can understand why they took this approach. Again, in the post-Cold War era, there aren’t really a lot of stories that provide the same interest and intensity as the potential for nuclear war. But it does demonstrate just how tired and unrealistic this plot device has become. And the only reason I labor the point is because it only gets more like this the longer the franchise goes. It capitalizes on the fact that the American public really doesn’t know that much about the world or its people, and are willing to believe various doomsday scenerarios because they’ve been so inundated with them by movies and fiction for so many years.

But how else are you going to create a fun and accessible WWIII scenario?  An in the end, it doesn’t take away from the awesome gaming experience that Modern Warfare truly is. Stay tuned, up next, the sequel!

Coming soon: Video game reviews!

A short while ago, I did a review on my top ten favorite nostalgic games. I might have mentioned somewhere in there that this was an intro to a new segment I was thinking of getting into: video game reviews! Well, I’ve decided to take the plunge. In the next few weeks and months, I’d like to do full reviews on the sci-fi video games that have made an impact on me over the years, or that I’ve just taken the time to enjoy.

I’ve prepared a tentative list below and would like to know if anyone has any games they’d like to add. Keep in mind two basic criteria: One, it should be a sci-fi or fantasy game, or at least something that’s mildly futuristic (which is how I justified adding Modern Warfare to this list). And two, it needs to be something I have or will be able to get my hands on in the near future. But anything’s possible given time, so just make your suggestions and I’ll let you know if I can or can’t find it!

Thanks you and happy gaming! Expect the first reviews soon 😉 *Note that the list is a mock-up and the actual reviews need not occur in that order.

  1. Knights of the Old Republic
  2. The Sith Lords
  3. Star Wars: Force Unleashed (I and II)
  4. Sid Meiers Alpha Centauri
  5. Halo (1, 2, 3)
  6. Starcraft (and Brood War)
  7. Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty
  8. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
  9. Modern Warfare (1, 2 and 3)
  10. AVP (2010)
  11. Wing Commander (I, II, III)
  12. Wing Commander Privateer (1 and 2)