The personal interaction aspect of videogames adds a new wrinkle. It's easier to be a passive observer than an active participant, even if the war crimes are fictitious in both movies and games. When war crimes are committed in movies, we don't feel the personal connection to a character because they don't represent ourselves. Activision must have known that committing virtualized wholesale slaughter in "No Russian" would disturb some players; that's why we had the option to skip it.
Our actions in games are consequence-free reflections of actual atrocities that have and still do take place constantly.
This isn't to say that gamers have inherent hostility issues. Most of us are anything but violent. But if part of the reason we step into games is escapist fantasy, to live our lives through the eyes of affable heroes like Nathan Drake or quiet brutes like Master Chief, then it logically extends that the worst of our actions are part of that escapist fantasy as well. Sometimes in the context of a story, what may seem like justice or justified violence is anything but according to international law. Our actions in games are consequence-free reflections of actual atrocities that have and still do take place constantly. Thinking more deeply about these issues may lend more richness to the plot, and more effort on the part of developers to plumb the moral gray areas.
In fact, that was the entire point of the study that sparked all the discussion in the first place. In a statement outlining its goals, the authors suggest that raising public awareness will ultimately benefit gamers and developers. It said it hopes to "raise public awareness" about the rules of IHL, and "engage in a dialogue with game producers and distributors on the idea of incorporated the essential rules of IHL and IHRL into their games which may, in turn, render them more varied, realistic and entertaining."
Imagine for a moment that the next Call of Duty or Battlefield title decides to take IHL into account. It may allow you to break humanitarian law, but the system builds consequences to your actions. Properly responding to a situation could result in a medal or commendation. Committing war crimes could end with you on trial and serving a sentence. Your reaction to that scenario may vary based on how realistic you want your down-time, but the option would at least create a greater degree of simulation.
Clearly, the existence of war crimes in games is for the sake of entertainment, to progress the plot, or simplify your choices in combat scenarios. A game designer's first responsibility is to crafting an enjoyable experience. We've already seen leaps of realism in the last decade of military shooters as designers refine the craft, so we can imagine that the presence of IHL might someday be seamlessly integrated into the experience without sacrificing the integrity of the game. The Red Cross would feel happier with the portrayal of war, and gamers could feel a bit more comfortable with how their avatars treat the opposition.
Steve Watts is a freelancer in the Baltimore area, nearly 30 years old, and still loves comic books.