Video games are a powerful storytelling medium. Games have the capability of delivering emotional and complex narratives that genuinely affect how players think about and live in the world. With such power, games also carry a responsibility. Especially when violence is concerned, it’s important that video games consider the full implications of their intentional and unintentional messaging. An increasingly prevalent issue within multiplayer games is the uncritical acceptance of war crimes as not only normal but a legitimate way to interact with the virtual world.
Players do not commit virtual war crimes on the online battlefield because they want to. Instead, the mechanics which developers have created often incentivize or require players to cross century-old ethical boundaries in pursuit of victory. I think video game developers can and should do better.
On December 9th, 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross put out a press statement titled “ video games and law of war.” The statement declares the Red Cross’ interest in requiring video games to apply the rules of force which exist on military members in real life to “video games that portray realistic battlefield scenes.”
The limitations that the Red Cross asked for primarily applied to single player experiences in which the player is acting out a military scenario. Experiences like this have only become more important as video games have become more mainstream. Activision Blizzard’s Call of Duty League is actually sponsored by the U.S. Army, which indicates that more eyes are looking to video games as legitimate examples of simulated violence than ever before.
Specifically, the Red Cross stated its desire to handle depictions of torture, attacks on civilians, killing of prisoners and the wounded, and attacks on medical personnel within the guidelines of international conventions such as the Geneva Convention. The statement specified that they do not expect the removal of all war crime content, since that would sanitize reality and limit artists from criticizing war as it occurs. They do, however, want gamers and developers to be morally conscious of the heinous acts they are witnessing or designing into their games.
“In real life, armed forces are subject to the laws of armed conflict,” explained the Red Cross. “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.”
The ICRC are not in any way asking for the censorship of video game violence or even war crimes. They are asking for an ethical and moral dialogue about representations of war crimes in games. In other words, the industry should evolve and get better at telling war stories by taking into account the more realistic aspects of war, even as our graphics become even more photorealistic.
Many developers have used the excuse that players make choices in games, so it isn’t on the developer to prevent unethical play. Grand Theft Auto V is a great example of this. The developers gave players a world where they can golf, play the stock market, and explore the city in many different exotic cars. So if a player commits acts of violence, that is on the player. At the same time, violence is a core mechanic of GTA and therefore players will likely use that core mechanic.
To be clear, committing war crimes in video games in no way makes the average player more violent. However, the presentation of war crimes in video games can be disrespectful when handled poorly.
Since 2011, some games have sought to do better when it comes to depicting the violence of war in games. Particularly, single player experiences have increasingly been more self-aware about the rules of violence in their games. Spec Ops: The Line famously deconstructed how video game mechanics encourage players to react inappropriately to intense situations.
One key scene has the player approached by what appears to be dozens of enemies. The player can either do nothing and die, or they can fire their weapon. Crucially, if the player fires their weapon at the “enemies,” the group immediately flees. The group will flee even if the player fires the weapon in the air, but very few players will think to fire the weapon in the air, because that’s not how shooter mechanics usually work.
“We have to stop looking at it as the difference between what the player is doing and what we wrote,” explained lead writer of Spec Ops: The Line, Walt Williams in an interview with Kotaku. “The player can only do what the core mechanic allows him to do… Your main character can never be more righteous than the core mechanic [of shooting] demands.”
On the other side of the coin, most multiplayer online shooters casually brush off war crimes as mechanics that simply make sense for their game. Online shooters are rarely trying to tell a true story and are much more interested in the technique and mechanics of a balanced game against other players. Whether it’s using functional chemical warfare, like Fortnite’s now vaulted Stink Bomb, or murdering a wounded player on the ground to get their stuff, the practice of carrying out war crimes in online games can be all too casual, which is exactly what the Red Cross is concerned about.
When Battlefield V was released, Design Director at DICE Dan Berlin responded to an interview question from Jack “JackFrags” Mason about whether it would be possible to shoot downed opponents. Berlin smuggly stated, “You can’t shoot enemy players that are on the ground [in BFV], that’s an actual war crime. So we aren’t doing that.”
His response was a jab at games like Fortnite, Playerunknown’s BattleGrounds, some Call of Duty titles, and numerous other war based video game titles where players can finish off wounded opponents like the sociopaths they are. Berlin’s smugness was premature, since soon after the launch of Battlefield V, it was possible to kill downed opponents in the title’s Firestorm game mode.
In a Reddit thread addressing whether it was okay to kill downed opponents in Battlefield’s Firestorm mode, one user responded, “You do what you need to to win. Full stop.” Other users said, “Who cares, do what makes you play better” or “Personally I finish them off so that nobody gets a cheeky revive and I’m left out numbered.”
These players aren’t wrong to kill the downed opponents, from a gaming stand point. They are just playing the game well. They are following the core mechanics that were provided by DICE, Epic, Activision, and other developers of online games. At worst, these actions are considered rude in online games, but not unethical. These responses speak to the reality that video game developers don’t just allow war crimes in their games, their mechanics encourage, or even require, players to commit them.
This issue is not new. In fact, in Call of Duty 2 there is a scene in which soldiers are depicted killing all the wounded after a battle. Countless games have required the player to torture, fail to bury the dead, attack civilians, kill wounded soldiers, or even drop mustard gas on enemies. These games depict these scenarios with varying levels of critique. Some games force the players to confront the reality of war crimes, like Spec Ops: The Line. Other games seemingly include war crimes with almost no criticism, like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
In 2009, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s No Russian mission crossed a line for the public by allowing players to gun down dozens of civilians in the Moscow airport. This scene caused a ton of public backlash towards war games as a whole, and Activision eventually adjusted the scene so players weren’t required to commit the heinous act to advance the story.
Mechanics lead how the player is going to play the game. If you encourage players to commit heinous acts without any examination of those acts, they will do it. Choice in video games is mostly an illusion. The moral responsibility for video game representations lies squarely on the developers of the game.
I don’t think that uncritical presentations of war crimes makes gamers more violent or dangerous. In fact, I think that depictions of war crimes for the purpose of critiquing war, violence, nationalism, and other important issues is uniquely good. The Red Cross kind of hit the nail on the head in 2011 by saying that we should depict these things with the clear knowledge that they are war crimes and shouldn’t be done in real life. Video games are a powerful storytelling medium and casually including war crime mechanics with no critique of the crime itself is lazy at best and a little bit evil at worst.
Game developers need to take their social responsibility more seriously. The uncritical inclusion of mechanics that violate international law makes me wonder if some developers even know they are depicting war crimes. Are the developers of PUBG aware that for thousands of years it’s been considered immoral to kill a wounded opponent? Or do they just not care? Frankly, I am not sure which is worse.
In single player games, studios usually analyze the war crimes through the context of a narrative. Representations of war crimes can be useful and important, but developers have to come to depictions of such heinous violence with some perspective and respect. I think multiplayer games rarely provide either perspective or respect for the war crimes they depict and I would like to see that change.