When it comes to military-style computer video games, realism sells.
In first-person shooter games like the top-selling "Call of Duty" and "Modern Warfare," players are virtual participants in realistic battlefield scenarios inspired by and often based on actual combat situations.
But while the onscreen firefights, death, and destruction are not real, the decisions players make in order to "win" the game are another matter.
In their pursuit of victory, gamers can choose to wipe out whole villages, shoot civilians, and commit other acts that in real life would constitute war crimes.
Now the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is arguing that this false sense of impunity has the potential to affect what happens on actual battlefields.
The Red Cross says the absence of rules of war in the games "create[s] the impression that prohibited acts, such as torture and extrajudicial killing, are standard behavior."
The group is hoping to persuade the companies that develop military-style video games to make international humanitarian law part of the player experience.
It’s important, explains the ICRC’s Francois Senechaud, because future and current military personnel are among the estimated 600 million players worldwide.
"We know that [the] military, when they are entertaining themselves, are also playing those games," Senechaud says. "So we are not just addressing people that are civilians outside of the battlefield. Through those games, we are addressing the future combatants, the lawmakers, the decision makers, and also those people that are on the contemporary battlefields."
ICRC spokesman Bernard Barrett says the world’s largest humanitarian group isn’t asking game makers to censor their products -- after all, war crimes occur in real life -- but does want "games to respect the basic rules of armed conflict and include penalties for gamers who commit war crimes."
That would improve knowledge of the rules of war among millions of players, which the ICRC says could "offer the promise of greater respect for [international humanitarian law] on tomorrow's battlefields."
The connection between virtual violence and human behavior has been the subject of countless studies
and will even soon be the subject of hearings
in the U.S. Congress.
But the impact of video games in the real world is still very much an open question.
Activision, the company that makes the wildly popular "Call of Duty" military games, did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment, but the game’s executive producer, Mark Rubin, told gameinformer.com that the games are obviously outside the realm of reality.
"There’s an enormous amount of appreciation for what [military veterans] do [but] in no way do we feel we are a representation of what their lives are like," Rubin said. "A lot of the stuff that we show in the game has been done by someone, but it’s not representative of what they do or it’s not an equivalent in any way of what they do. We’re just trying to make a fun movie."
'Efficient Method Of Training'
Marek Spanel doesn’t agree. Spanel is the CEO of the Prague-based video company Bohemia Interactive and says its top-selling "Arma" computer military games are so realistic that many governments use them to train soldiers.
"These games are used by many different military organizations across the world, so in the United States, Australia, United Kingdom, basically across all the NATO countries because they recognize this to be a very efficient method of training people," Spanel said.
That’s probably one reason why the Red Cross asked the company to join its campaign. Bohemia Interactive Creative Director Ivan Buchta says he didn’t hesitate.
"When we were first approached by [the] ICRC with the offer to consult on international humanitarian law, my first thought was, ‘Wow, we will learn something new we could put into the game, we will make it more authentic,'" Buchta said.
The request led Bohemia Interactive to look at how customers were playing the games, and Spanel says they discovered a disturbing fact.
"We realized that some players just went to the game, took the gun, and just fired at everything that moved," he said. "So we felt that this was just not right and we introduced a simple yet very intuitive mechanism [so that] if you do this, and there are any friendly troops around you, they will attack [you]."
The campaign by the ICRC is still in its infancy, so whether more video-game companies get onboard remains to be seen.
But players who have heard about the effort are skeptical, judging from several comments
posted on the website Tech Dirt.
One wrote: "These people need immediate psychiatric treatment if they can't distinguish fantasy from reality."
Another post made the same point with sarcasm: "It is refreshing to see that all of the ills in the real world have been solved and that the Red Cross has moved on to the virtual world...er wait, this just in: People still starving and dying in reality…. People still needing assistance. Maybe finish what you started in reality, before worrying about the virtual world."