Realistic war games have collateral damage of their own

October 14, 2013 by Nick Robinson, The Conversation
Where are all the Parisians? Call of Duty avoids hurting people by simply pretending they don’t exist. Credit: Call of Duty

The Red Cross has called for makers of videogames to more actively embed and interrogate the laws of war by, for example, punishing players for killing civilians or using torture to gain information. However, attempts to explore war in a more sophisticated way in video games are often greeted with criticism from the media. It seems like the industry just can't win.

Understanding that calling for simplistic solutions such as confronting players who fail to play by the real life rules of war with a " over" screen is not likely to hold much sway, the Red Cross has suggested that games should be designed which open up spaces for reflection on the realities of warfare and the ethical minefield which is the contemporary battlefield.

The charity is in part right. Military do tend to avoid the portrayal of civilians and avoid any sense that war yields civilian "collateral damage". In real life, news brings war into the living room through civilian deaths. But games try to avoid controversy by making sure civilians are simply absent from their battlefields. In the recent Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, the player is fighting on the streets of Paris with tanks, heavy weaponry and inevitably causes widespread destruction of buildings. Yet there are no civilians in this fictional Paris and no apparent .

Even more problematic is the role of interrogation and in videogames. Torture is integral to both the story and gameplay in big titles such as Call of Duty: Black Ops and Splinter Cell Conviction. Only by breaking the rules of real warfare can the player gather mission critical information which unlocks the narrative. The games are set up so that mission critical information is yielded quickly and reliably – the message of the game is clear, namely that interrogation and torture are effective and justified for the greater good.

In this case, a constructive approach to the Red Cross's complaint might be to develop a game in which torture either yields inaccurate information or no information at all, or if it took a significant time to yield information from a victim. This is how gameplay mechanics can open up spaces for reflection.

It's in the game

However, it is important to emphasise that the Red Cross critique misses the rich tapestry that is contemporary gaming. At one level, there are already a number of games by politically motivated activists that do offer spaces for social critique and reflection on the nature of contemporary war. Perhaps most successful of these is September 12, in which the player can undertake remote strikes on an unnamed middle eastern village. However, these invariably result in the death of civilians, resulting in the mourning of friends and family who then morph into terrorists. The message of this game is even more clear than that of Call of Duty – the war on terror cannot be won by military action which will only escalate the violence.

The highly successful Metal Gear Solid franchise also contains a narrative that is strongly critical of contemporary war. Players who kill their opponents are punished with almost certain death. The game is in fact much easier if the player avoids shooting and operates with stealth. Thus Metal Gear Solid and its (albeit limited) ilk suggest that imaginative design can open up very different ways of playing and experiencing war.

Who can't handle the truth?

So games that force us to think about war do exist but that doesn't necessarily mean we are ready to play them. Historically, when games try to engage with the issues raised by the Red Cross, the political and social reaction has been vociferously critical. An infamous example is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's airport massacre sequence. Here the player is a counter-terrorism operative working under cover in a terrorist cell. It was rightly criticised because regardless of whether you choose to shoot civilians in the airport or not the consequences are the same – the player is killed by terrorists.

The game would have been more interesting if you could have turned your gun on the terrorists with consequences for the story. It could have explored more complex issues such as how far the player would go to prevent greater catastrophe. Yet given the media furore, the lesson is that it is perhaps easier to remove altogether.

In another controversy, the proposed game Six Days in Fallujah set out to explore ethical questions around one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq . The game was almost immediately embroiled in a political maelstrom and Konami, its proposed publisher, ultimately withdrew, suggesting that games were not yet ready to handle such controversy

So while the Red Cross is right to raise concerns with videogames, there are some clear indications that the industry is already taking steps to reflect on these issues. For their attempts to work, we need to be socially and politically ready to accept the consequences. Can we trust the player with their finger on the virtual trigger? Perhaps more importantly, can we trust the media and social commentators to desist from sensationalist reporting about games which allow for the possibility of civilian massacres? The nature of the earlier reporting on Six Days in Fallujah suggests that the players and industry may be rather more ready to meet the Red Cross's call than the media.

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3.8 / 5 (4) Oct 14, 2013
But take a game like grand theft auto and this won't work. People play it because you can do silly stuff like run over pedestrians or cap police in the back of the head for no reason. People play games because they are not real. The red cross needs to focus its energies in places that actually matter like in REAL LIFE and do something about REAL war crimes that go unpunished. Like take on USA for its torture... i mean enhanced interrogation of detainees instead of interfering with leisure activities. If someone is unable to distinguish between real life and a computer game then they should not watch tv, films, play with toy guns and many more things that fall under that category. Perhaps the red cross are losing their sense of reality so they measure everyone else by them.
1.8 / 5 (10) Oct 14, 2013
Too true. And censorship of games is just as stupid. These are video games, not real life. If you don't want kids to play them, change the ratings. In Australia, Saints Row IV was literally banned. That's asking people to either download it and contribute to piracy, or import it and contribute to foreign economies. You see worse in movies than in video games. And they're worried about cartoon violence.
2 / 5 (8) Oct 14, 2013
If someone is unable to distinguish between real life and a computer game

It's not a question about not being able to distinguish game from reality, but about not having been subjected to any other point of view.

A person who themself will never have to deal with the issues of war won't have a viewpoint other than what is delivered by the media, movies, games etc. and even though one may understand that it's "just movies" or "just games", what else are they supposed to think? Where are they to get the idea that killing is -actually- bad?

If all the culture around you suggests that e.g. punching someone in the face is acceptable behaviour, even though it's just fiction, then you're inclined to belittle physical violence when it actually happens to someone, and when the whole society thinks that way you get a violence problem. People just think "Oh just punch back you sissy" because that's their default point of view that is propagated by the culture.

2 / 5 (12) Oct 14, 2013
You can blow the feet off a Syrian child with a bomb and all people care about is if the picture is too graphic to be allowed on the Internet but abuse a pixilated avatar and God help us all. Let the Red Cross and humanity and God himself perform acts on themselves so vile and anatomically impossible as to not be describable on this site.
2.6 / 5 (5) Oct 14, 2013
The Red Cross has one point. You never see the banksters who fund the war. That is the most engaging role play of all! Just enter a number into a laptop and watch the blood spill automatically while your accounts balloon in direct proportion to the kills on both sides!
5 / 5 (1) Oct 15, 2013
Many games already have this moral component. For example, "Hitman Absolution" heavily penalises the player when civilian targets are killed. "Dishonored" progressively increases the difficulty and unpredictability of the environment if the player keeps killing civilians. In fact, there are very few mainstream games which do not penalize the player in some way for 'killing' civilians.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 15, 2013
And censorship of games is just as stupid.

I don't think they are advocating censorship here - but merely inclusion of more detail that is relevant to warlike situations (i.e. making 'realistic' simulations really realistic).

I agree that most games are played for fun to intentionally break boundaries one cannot break in real life. To those the criticism doesn't apply. These games are 'intentionally unreal' in any case.

The criticism DOES apply to those sims that claim to be a good depiction of reality - especially those funded by various military organizations as recruitment vehicles.
5 / 5 (1) Oct 15, 2013
Do video games inspire PTSD? No? Then they're not sufficiently realistic. When people speak of video game realism, they're talking about some sort of fantasy "realism", intended to excite and entertain. That's the point.

While I don't agree that censoring game makers or forcing them to adopt some sort of ethical code would be useful, I also am leery of any claims video games don't have the potential for warping some segment of their players. I wouldn't be surprised if many hard-core gamers disagree with the Red Cross, perhaps for even raising the issue.

Having said that, I don't know what the "rules of war" are supposed to be. If not violating your own side's morals is important, you don't do it. It's not like both sides agree in this matter.
2 / 5 (8) Oct 15, 2013
I don't think they are advocating censorship here - but merely inclusion of more detail that is relevant to warlike situations (i.e. making 'realistic' simulations really realistic).

You're right, actually. Thanks for that. Should've read that through a bit more.

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