Shooters Aren’t Built for War

In their continued effort to extend their cultural efforts into the games industry, the International Committee of the Red Cross recently weighed in on violence and war crimes in video games. In their words, “games should include virtual consequences for people’s actions and decisions.” They pursue a commendable goal of raising awareness not just about human atrocities but the tools we all have at our disposal to diminish their frequency. Of course, actually seeing this vision implemented in a trigger-happy games industry is dubious. The efficacy of depicting the consequences of violence has as much to do with how games are built as how stories are told.

Take some of the responses to the ICRC’s comments as indicative of the fundamental concerns regarding war crimes in games. Over on CNET, one commenter astutely points out: “It apparently hasn’t occurred to them that getting charged with virtual War Crimes would be a totally cool thing.” On Polygon, another comment reads: “That will always be something I’ll never understand about wars, how can they have rules?” On Kotaku, a reader describes a hypothetical situation in which a player receives “a sternly worded letter from the UN” and promptly throws it in the trash.

This is not the first time the ICRC has addressed war crimes in games either. In a 2011 article on the subject, comments include “since when there is rules in war???” [sic] and “why don’t we just handle the international humanitarian law and human rights violations like the real world does, by completely ignoring them.”

There are of course numerous positive comments, but these highlight the difficulty of depicting war crimes in games. The efficacy of international law and norms largely involve invisible consequences, something painfully difficult to model in digital systems. That isn’t to say criminal law has no real world outcomes. The International Criminal Court has overseen the indictment and conviction of numerous war criminals, including the leaders responsible for atrocities that took place in Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The problem is that the actual effect these laws have remains largely hidden.

Yes, the United Nations and the tools that the world uses to enforce International Law are deeply flawed, but the reason so many people find even the idea of normative regulations in warfare so difficult to understand lies in the difficulty of showing success in prosecuting war crimes. We all know when a war happens, but how do we keep track of when wars almost happen, but don’t? There are no outbreaks of peace, and stories where two conflicting parties talk out their differences seldom gets news coverage.

We can apply this same circumstance to war crimes. Criminal convictions are outcomes of a process with an entirely different goal. The purpose of crimes against humanity is to deter future atrocities and facilitate reconciliation and social reconstruction in war-torn regions. Implementing legal punishments for war crimes in video games is necessarily a process of negative feedback in an attempt to reverse player behavior.

The problem is that negative feedback can have unintended consequences. As the CNET commenter mentioned, maybe being tried for a virtual war crime would be cool. Jenova Chen of Thatgamecompany has spoken to this idea, stating “The thing is, everyone is seeking maximum feedback.” When we punish players for certain violent actions, it may actually undermine the persuasive rhetoric that the ICRC seeks to create. How many of us, for example, have killed civilians in Assassin’s Creed to vent frustration, even while we know it will temporarily end the game?

Chen’s solution is to offer no feedback at all for player behaviors he wishes to avoid, and many take this route. For example, where are all the children of Los Santos in GTA V? Players cannot receive any feedback for killing children, good or bad, because there are no children in the game. This solution, however, merely maintains the status quo in shooters. In a world devoid of civilians, there can be no war crime.

We are left with only positive feedback. As the ICRC suggests in their article (and what is largely left out of press coverage), “gamers should be rewarded for respecting the law of armed conflict.” And once again, we are confronted with a dilemma. Positive feedback in International Law, generally speaking, doesn’t exist. Sure, you can win the Nobel Peace prize, but there’s no such point system to distribute to “the most peaceful nation” in agame.

What positive feedback does exist in international politics is largely invisible. The effort to ban landmines, which culminated in the Ottawa Treaty, is one the most successful regulatory campaigns of all time. But how visible is the lack of landmines? Success is measured by empty fields and recycled scrap metal from destroyed stockpiles. Peace itself, which could be considered a very powerful form of positive feedback, is incredibly difficult to measure (and yes, many people try).

With these invisible consequences in mind, how do we promote international law in games using strictly positive feedback? Do we give extra points to players who avoid shooting civilians? Do we unlock trophies for people who refuse to torture enemy combatants? Can you offer loot to conscientious objectors? These are haphazard solutions to a problem that lies at the heart of military shooters today. At their very core, they are not built to adequately address the wider implications of military violence. I commend them for their efforts, but shooters as we know them today cannot hope to address warfare as the ICRC desires.

If the ICRC wants to promote their message of peace, they are better off listening to the advice of one of Polygon’s insightful commenters: “Understanding why real war crimes occurs seems more important to me than cultivating a faux respect for the rules of war in scenarios devoid of the true reality of war.”