Where does one draw an ethical boundary when pretending to commit moral atrocities? That was the question recently raised by a committee meeting during the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The internet’s penchant for hyperbole stirred fears that the organization would push for restrictions on videogame content, and the Red Cross was quickly forced to clarify that it had no intent of pursuing legal action. But lost in the paranoia was the organization’s central point: Videogames often do allow or even force a player to take part in virtualized war crimes, without educating players on which actions cross the legal line. The intent was to raise awareness, not lock up gamers — and to that end, the Red Cross was absolutely right to ask the question.

If an officer or soldier of a signatory country breaks these rules, that person has committed a war crime.

You might have heard the term “war crime” thrown around a lot recently — it’s been especially popular among partisan politicians and pundits criticizing the controversy du jour. The Red Cross, though, was specifically referring to violations of international treaties like the various Geneva Conventions and Hague Peace Conferences. These and various other treaties make up International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL). If an officer or soldier of a signatory country breaks these rules, that person has committed a war crime.

By the rule of IHL, war crimes include the obvious like genocide or taking slaves, but also less intuitive ones. As a signatory country of the third Geneva Convention, for example, the United States can’t keep POWs in prison cells, except for their own protection. Instead, prisoners have to be interred within boundaries. Thanks to the Hague conferences, we also can’t damage or export cultural property like artwork or libraries. The full list of IHL laws is detailed and vast, and treats war opposition more humanely than you might expect from what you see in pop culture.

A 2009 study from Swiss humanitarian groups TRIAL and Pro Juventute took a closer look at war crimes in games, but even that extensive study was somewhat problematic for examining war crimes committed by the player. Some examples like Rainbow Six Vegas simply portrayed war crimes perpetrated by villains; the player’s goal was to catch or stop the criminals. Others examples like Metal Gear Solid 4 or Far Cry 2 allowed war crimes committed by the player, but the heroes were hired mercenaries and not acting on behalf of a signatory country. The study conceded that certain controversial IHL issues, like how to treat private military contractors, made some of the scenarios difficult to judge.

Even discounting those, however, the study did find several valid examples. In both Resistance: Fall of Man and Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway, the players fight within churches, which are protected under IHL as cultural heritage buildings. Civilian property is generally protected under IHL, so the wide array of destructible environments in Battlefield: Bad Company were a violation as well. The first Modern Warfare was actually commended in the report for showing consequences; during the AC-130 sequence, you would fail the mission for firing upon a church.

Call of Duty: World at War, allowed the use of flamethrowers on enemy soldiers who were only a short distance away, violating the 1907 Hague Regulations against unnecessary suffering.

Modern Warfare‘s follow-up, Call of Duty: World at War, allowed the use of flamethrowers on enemy soldiers who were only a short distance away, violating the 1907 Hague Regulations against unnecessary suffering. It’s important to note that these regulations were in place during World War II, when the game takes place.

One of the most common instances of war crimes’ depiction in games is finishing off an enemy after he’s been injured. Videogames tend to treat combatants in very binary roles: they’re either a threat, or they’re dead. In reality, an enemy who is incapacitated or has laid down their arms has surrendered, and they aren’t to be harmed. In fact, injured enemy combatants should be given medical attention. Shooting an incapacitated or unarmed enemy is a blatant violation of humanitarian law.

Since the report was published, even more games have presented their own sets of IHL violations. The well-publicized civilian massacre “No Russian” in Modern Warfare 2 is likely the most egregious example, but the player also assists in a plan to launch a nuclear weapon near a populated area of Washington DC. Much of the fighting in Modern Warfare 3 takes place in civilian-populated areas as well, and at one point the combat takes place in a church. If we assume science-fiction futures to still abide by the Geneva Conventions, Rico’s cold-blooded execution of the Helghan emperor in Killzone 2 was a clear violation as well.

This is in stark contrast to movies, which rarely show our heroes engaged in war crimes. When a character does commit IHL violations in war films, it’s usually treated as a dark turning point for the character. When Willard shoots an injured survivor in Apocalypse Now, it’s used as a critique in the interest of the larger narrative. When US soldiers gun down surrendering Germans in Saving Private Ryan, it’s an egregious offense that shows the depersonalization of war. Very rarely is a war crime treated as light-hearted, humorous, or even necessary, as it sometimes is in videogames.

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.

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