Thursday, December 8, 2011

Virtual worlds - nothing to get hung about?

Track Impunity Always (TRIAL) is a Swiss organization that, in its words, participates "in the fight against impunity for the perpetrators accomplices and instigators of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of torture." Back in 2009, it co-sponsored a study on the extent in which humanitarian law is reflected in popular video games.

Guess what? Often it's not.

[T]he rules of international humanitarian law are often not taken into consideration within the game design. This may not be surprising, as these computer and video games are not meant to serve as didactical tools to teach the rules of war, but rather to entertain their players. 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.

Obviously TRIAL has its opinions on the matter, and it made a recommendation:

[At least a few] games show that it is indeed possible to include rules of international humanitarian law and human rights in war games. 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 (such as the ICRC or the international criminal courts etc.) 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.

Recommendations are recommendations, and whether gamers agree with it or not, there's certainly no harm in TRIAL recommending the incorporation of aspects of international law into video games.

But what if the recommendations go beyond recommendations? Enter the International Red Cross, where this topic was raised during a December 1 conference session (PDF).

Video games and IHL: how should the Movement take action?

While the Movement works vigorously to promote international humanitarian law (IHL) worldwide, there is also an audience of approximately 600 million gamers who may be virtually violating IHL. Exactly how video games influence individuals is a hotly debated topic, but for the first time, Movement partners discussed our role and responsibility to take action against violations of IHL in video games. In a side event, participants were asked: “what should we do, and what is the most effective method?” While National Societies shared their experiences and opinions, there is clearly no simple answer.

There is, however, an overall consensus and motivation to take action.

And how do you take action against those who are "virtually violating" international humanitarian law?

One of the world's largest and most respected humanitarian groups in the world is investigating whether the Geneva and Hague conventions should be applied to the fictional recreation of war in video games.

If they agree those standards should be applied, the International Committee of the Red Cross says they may ask developers to adhere to the rules themselves or "encourage" governments to adopt laws to regulate the video game industry.

Yes, the teenage boy in the bedroom could be a war criminal, just like Adolf Eichmann, Osama bin Laden, and Hideki Tojo. Or so it appeared in some of the articles that started to appear.

As the headlines spread, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued the statement that I have reproduced below. So everyone who's upset at the Red Cross can calm down and go back to donating at your local blood bank.

Hmm, blood bank. Sounds violent.

Here is the ICRC statement:

Is there a place for the laws of armed conflict in video games?
08-12-2011 FAQ

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement recently discussed the implications of video games that simulate real-war situations and the opportunities the games may present for spreading knowledge of the laws of armed conflict. Some questions and answers on this subject are provided below.

Why is the ICRC interested in video games that simulate real warfare?

The ICRC is interested in issues relating to video games of this type, i.e. games simulating warfare where players face choices just like on a real battlefield.

In real life, armed forces are subject to the laws of armed conflict. Video games simulating the experience of armed forces therefore have the potential to raise awareness of the rules that those forces must comply with whenever they engage in armed conflict – this is one of the things that interests the ICRC. As a matter of fact, certain video games already take into account how real-life military personnel are trained to behave in conflict situations.

Part of the ICRC's mandate, conferred on it by States, is to promote respect for international humanitarian law – also known as the law of armed conflict – and universal humanitarian principles. Given this mandate and the ICRC's long history and expertise in matters relating to armed conflict, the development of these games is clearly of interest to the organization.

A few media reported that certain virtual acts performed by characters in video games could amount to serious violations of the law of armed conflict. Is this correct?

No. Serious violations of the laws of war can only be committed in real-life situations, not in video games.

Does the ICRC work with video-game developers to make sure the law of armed conflict features in certain games?

The ICRC has expressed its readiness to engage in a dialogue with the video gaming industry in order to explore the place of humanitarian rules in games. The ICRC welcomes the fact that certain video games on war-related themes already take the law of armed conflict into account.

Shouldn't the ICRC be primarily concerned with real-life warfare?

Absolutely, and real-life armed conflict and its humanitarian consequences are in fact its primary concern.

With its roughly 12,000 staff, the ICRC carries out humanitarian activities in situations of armed violence all over the world. It is often the first organization to arrive on the scene when conflict erupts and to attend to the needs of people detained, displaced or otherwise affected. It also strives to bring about improved compliance with the law of armed conflict and thereby contribute to creating an environment conducive to respect for the dignity of persons affected.

Why does the ICRC show interest in video games but not, for example, in books, comics, TV series or films?

The ICRC is occasionally approached by filmmakers or authors who want to portray its activities in past or present armed conflicts. It has thus had contacts with various segments of the entertainment world beyond the developers of video games. The ICRC is not interested in all video games – only in those simulating armed conflict. Some of these games are being designed and produced by the same companies developing simulated battlefields for the training of armed forces.

What was said on this subject at the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent?

The 31st International Conference met in November 2011 in Geneva with the overall objective of strengthening international humanitarian law and humanitarian action. In a side event, participants also explored the role that the law of armed conflict plays, or does not play, in simulations of war. They considered various ways in which the rules applicable in armed conflict could feature in simulations. The side event was an informal discussion; no resolution or plan of action was adopted.
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