The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Laws of War and First Person Shooters

March 1, 2009

Cleitus the Black has an amusing post up at Elected Swineherd about parents who ask their children to honor the Geneva Conventions while playing violent video games such as Call of Duty. According to MSNBC:

“Evan Spencer wanted to play ‘Call of Duty: World at War.’ So he asked his dad. Hugh Spencer wasn’t initially thrilled about the idea of his son playing the World War II-based game. “I’ve never really enjoyed first-person shooter games,” he confesses. “They’re just not my favorite aesthetic.” But the elder Spencer agreed to his son’s request, on one condition: Evan would have to read all four treaties from the Geneva Conventions first. And then, agree to play by those rules.”

Says Cleitus:

“This kid’s parents think they’re being responsible; in fact, they’re merely showcasing their ignorance. Despite the minor fact that the majority of the Geneva Conventions did not exist in World War II… it’s quite impossible to break any Geneva Conventions in the game: characters have no chance to torture, execute prisoners, or launch attacks against civilian populations, although they get to witness those acts in graphic cinematic sequences.

The scoundrel’s only possible chance to tread a fine line is to fire a finishing shot into an already mortally wounded opponent; and this would probably be justified by the fact that many of those opponents will planning to make a “last stand” attack where they draw a pistol and blaze away until they run out of ammunition, or until they get shot again.

Gory and realistic though this game is, it’s hardly an educational training ground for learning the nuances of International Humanitarian Law. What it really represents is an opportunity for out-of-shape American youth to exercise their bloodlust without endangering themselves. If young Evan Spencer really wants to learn something about war, there’s plenty of hot-spots in the world where another teenage meat-puppet could make themselves useful as a bullet sponge.”

Spot on analysis of the gap between intention and reality with respect to this particular instance, but but I think the bigger question is: why don’t gaming companies build rulesets into first-person shooters that force players to acknowledge, consider and choose whether to break or follow basic just war rules?

Some quasi answers that lead to more questions:

1) The absence of a corporate social responsibility movement for the gaming industry. But how do we explain this? Beats me.

2) The fact that the International Committee of the Red Cross is not behind the idea – in fact it once sued a Canadian gaming company for incorporating the red cross symbol into the game. Again, why? Ostensibly concerns over the use of the emblem. But given that the ICRC’s mandate includes disseminating humanitarian law through everything from films to circus skits in the Sudan, this strikes me as another great mystery of our times – one might even say international law run amuck.

Still, one could build an ethics incentive structure into first person shooters without using the emblem, and one could even imagine pressing political reasons to do so. Enhancing US combat personnel’s law of war training while deployed in the field would seem like such a reason, since US national security presumably now depends on rebuilding failed states abroad. One marvels therefore that the US military, while aiming to succeed at “military operations other than war” still allows its off-duty combat personnel to rest and relax with games that simulate, at best, situations of high intensity conflict. We are not only missing a chance to use first person shooters to disseminate and train in the rules of war, but probably training soldiers in precisely the opposite skills.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.