Friday, November 27, 2009

Rules of Engagement

As someone authoring an article in next year's Pacific Coast Philology, a publication of the PMLA, on "Regulating Violence in Virtual Worlds: Theorizing Just War and Defining War Crimes in World of Warcraft," it was with great interest that I heard from Ren Reynolds about "Playing by the Rules: Applying International Humanitarian Law to Video and Computer Games," a report issued by the human rights group TRIAL.

The analysis chose to focus on video and computer games because, unlike literature, films and television, where the viewer has a passive role, in shooter games, the player has an active role in performing the actions. Furthermore, video games are increasingly used as a training tool within the military and are often set in present day conflicts (e.g. Afghanistan or Iraq), thus illustrating the realism these games have now achieved.

The report aims at developing awareness among developers and distributors of games portraying armed conflict scenarios in order to encourage them to incorporate the rules that apply to such conflicts in real life, namely those of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

Pro Juventute and TRIAL selected twenty games and analysed them according to a list of violations identified by specialists in international humanitarian law. They were then graded according to the intensity of the breaches identified. Hence, when a behaviour that violates the current rules regulating armed conflicts was sanctioned in the game, the game was labelled as “good”. When such violations were committed by the enemy (i.e. not by the gamer), the game was labelled as “mild”. When the gamer could choose to breach the rules regulating armed conflicts but was not obliged to do so in order to succeed in the game, the game was classified as “medium”. Finally, when such violations were required in order to succeed in the game, the game was labelled “strong”.

The report identified that, while certain games incorporate rules that encourage the gamer to respect human rights and international humanitarian law, most of them contain elements that violate these international standards. The most frequent violations encountered in the games were violations of the legal principles of distinction and proportionality. They include extensive destruction of civilian property and/or injury or deaths of civilians, not justified by military necessity, as well as intentionally directing attacks against civilians or civilian objects, including religious buildings such as mosques or churches. Another common violation was cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or torture. In several instances, these violations occurred in the context of an interrogation and in many cases, they ended in an extrajudicial execution. Direct attacks against civilians were also frequent violations, the victims mostly being hostages or civilians present in a village who were not mere casualties but rather directly targeted.

The report thus recommends that game developers avoid creating scenarios that easily lead to violations of the rules regulating armed conflicts. More generally, the report underlines that, as certain games illustrate, there are means of incorporating rules that encourage the gamer to respect human rights and international humanitarian law. Such an approach should be further developed, in order to create players with a more accurate perspective of what is lawful and what is not in real armed conflict situations or law enforcement operations.

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