The Red Cross has asked game developers making military themed shooters to include realistic consequences for any war crimes committed on the virtual battlefield.
With some developers deciding that depicting war in a believable fashion means unbelievably violent representations of the torture of prisoners and the massacre of civilians, the international aid body has requested that they include believable consequences for breaking the law.
“Video games that represent battlefields are very close to reality, and actually it's very difficult to tell the difference between real footage and the footage you can get in video games,” said Francois Senechaud of the International Committee of the Red Cross while speaking to the BBC.
“So we are arguing that you have to get even closer to reality and you have to include the laws of armed conflict.”
The Red Cross is entrusted with upholding the Geneva Conventions, the set of international treaties governing the rules of war.
First conceived in the aftermath of the Franco-Austian war, the Geneva Conventions includes provisions for the treatment of prisoners, guarantees the safety of medics and civilians, and prohibits the use of chemical armaments and weapons designed to inflict unnecessary pain and suffering.
Games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Splinter Cell: Black Ops, and Metal Gear Solid 2 each force players to violate terms of the conventions, which in a real conflict would call for imprisonment or even execution.
While some games – notably Bohemia Interactive's highly realistic Arma franchise – punish violence against civilians, most use the “horror of war” as a plot point.
There are some rules of war that are seldom, if ever, enforced and would be difficult to implement in a first person shooter, but the Red Cross raises an interesting point; games have rules, and so does war.
The idea that games could be used to reiterate that even in the extremities of battle there is a standard of human behaviour is compelling. Shooters like Call of Duty are one of the most popular ways for soldiers to blow off steam in the heat of Afghanistan.
If games that purport to show heroic fighters battling the evils of terror suggest that it's expected soldiers will commit their own atrocities free of consequences, what message does that send?
The Red Cross is not suggesting that all games should include a cutscene where the protagonists appear before the Hague to answer for their crimes, nor is it making an argument that there is a correlation between violent shooters and battlefield atrocities.
It is asking developers to consider the message sent to the armed forces by consistently portraying their most elite as war criminals.