I fought the International Humanitarian Law (and the International Human Rights Law won)

You may have seen the news this week that Games ‘permit’ virtual war crimes. It’s terribly easy to be sarcastic about a headline like that. Terribly, terribly easy. Astoundingly easy. Not chewing a fruit pastille is simplicity itself in comparison.

It’s always important to dig a bit deeper than a headline, though, otherwise you end up with somebody being asked to take their shoes off, if they wouldn’t mind too much, as a new carpet’s just been put in, it’s quite pale you see, and before you know it the Daily Mail’s leading with “GOVERNMENT BAN SHOES, death penalty for non-compliance” and 400 people in the comment section are making the startling observation that it’s political correctness gone mad. The full report is available online, and I urge you to go and read it. Well, most of it, there are more footnotes than in the Wikipedia article on footnotes (not difficult, actually, the Wikipedia article only has six. At the time of writing, that is, I might go off and edit it into a hilarious piece of meta irony, where the body of the article is just: Footnote[1].) Have a quick scan through, at least. It generally seems pretty reasonable; at least they’ve played the games in question rather than just looking at the boxes, or, say, picking an example entirely at random, going on Fox News and denouncing a game on the basis of the vaguest of hearsay. The report is not saying “games are evil” or “ban this sick filth!”, on the first page it states “The goal is not to prohibit the games, to make them less violent or to turn them into IHL or IHRL training tools.” There’s often a knee-jerk reaction from the gaming community to a perceived attack, not entirely unjustified in the wake of Jack Thompson, Fox News on Mass Effect etc., that goes “Yeah? Well your mum ‘permits’ virtual war crimes.” Such immaturity is beneath us. Plus, they smell of wee.

The problem with the report isn’t the difficulty it has in contextualising the nature of conflicts portrayed in Army of Two and the resulting implications for the unclear legal frameworks governing private security companies, or even that any attempt at applying any sort of real-world logic to “Metal Gear Soldier[sic] 4” surely flounders the moment it hits the sentence “The player is “Snake” and is fighting against “Liquid Ocelot””. The problem is back in the Aim of the Study:

We have chosen video and computer games as the object of our analysis 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. Thus, the line between the virtual and real
experience becomes blurred and the game becomes a simulation of real life situations on the

Problematic opener, that, the old blurring the lines between reality and simulation. It goes on to try and provide justification:

The link with reality is in fact so direct that nowadays several armies rely on video games
both as a recruiting and as a training tool. Military from some states put video games on their
websites to give the viewers a virtual experience of what being a soldier is like. Such games
allow them to virtually participate in trainings, be deployed on missions, fire weapons, take
decisions in unexpected battlefield situations, etc. Military also use video games, or
“simulations” more and more often as a training tool in addition to “on the field” training.
This demonstrates the impact of video games on the players and their behaviour in reality.

True, there’s military use of computer games; Marine Doom, America’s Army, etc etc., but you’d have to be Sir Bors to get from “the military use video games as a recruiting and training tool” to “all video games involving the military are recruiting or training tools”. There are military training manuals; these manuals are books; ergo all books are military training manuals.

Even considering that most of the game players will never become soldiers in reality, such
games clearly influence their view of what combat situations are like and what the role of the
military and of individual soldiers or law enforcement officials in such situations, is.

Here’s the nub of it; firstly, coming back to the starting paragraph, I’m not convinced games would influence someone’s view of combat situations any more than literature, films or television. Secondly, it very much depends on the game, lumping everything together as “such games” isn’t very useful. If a game makes a virtue of its realism, takes care to model things as accurately as possible, markets itself as a simulation, then yes, I believe it could influence somebody’s view of what it portrays (dependant on how well the game was implemented), in the same way that a documentary or non-fiction book could influence somebody’s view. The games they selected, though, are generally unabashed entertainment that gamers don’t see as realistic portrayals of warfare any more than the average viewer considers Bonekickers an accurate portrayal of archaeology. That’s where the whole exercise looks like a case of double standards, and a bit of a waste of time. You might as well sit a conscientious police officer down in front of Point Break and ask them what they made of it:

I won’t argue that it was a no-holds-barred adrenaline fuelled thrill-ride, but there’s no way that you could perpetrate that amount of carnage and mayhem and not incur a considerable amount of paperwork.

(Thank you, Hot Fuzz. Except that’s a comedy film talking about an action film, and thus entirely irrelevant because the viewer only has a passive role. Twice.)

One encouraging thing about the whole business is that in the BBC piece they turn to gamers for a response, and not just some drooling loon in the midnight release day queue for Modern Duty 17 who mumbles “Uh, I, uh, like shooting, and, uh, stuff”. John Walker and Jim Rossignol of the inestimably splendid Rock, Paper, Shotgun chip in, and I could’ve really not bothered with most of this and just quoted:

Mr Rossignol said there was plenty of evidence that gaming violence is “fully processed” as fantasy by gamers. Studies of soldiers on the front line in Iraq showed that being a gamer did not desensitise them to what they witnessed.

He added: “Perhaps what this research demonstrates is that the researchers misunderstand what games are, and how they are treated, intellectually, by the people who play them.”

11 thoughts on “I fought the International Humanitarian Law (and the International Human Rights Law won)

  1. Stabs

    “The study condemned the games for violating laws by letting players kill civilians, torture captives and wantonly destroy homes and buildings.” (from the BBC article)

    Actually no, players did not kill civilians, torture captives or destroy homes. They played a video game. Reality check people.

    Meanwhile a google search of “children killed afghanistan” produces about 2.6 million hits with the first story being “Women and children killed in Afghanistan by British air strike”. Possibly something the British Broadcasting Corporation should look at? All this British child murder?

    If antiwar protestors want to tackle the issues of how war is conducted they should be looking at reality not fantasy.

  2. Zoso Post author

    Err, yes, that’s what I meant about it being so easy to just take a shot at the headline, which the BBC have tucked away as a curiosity in the “Technology” section while the main news sections are dominated by, amongst other things, the Iraq War Inquiry and the latest in a series of investigations into British military conduct.

    The central tenet of the report is that the fantasy affects the reality, hence being considered worthy of investigation.

  3. Stabs

    What I was getting at is the BBC article doesn’t say players kill sprites representing children or simulate child-killing.

    It says players killed children. Not even “allegedly” killed children like real murderers get.

    His point about violent video games being psychologically different from violent films and violent books is also bollocks but I really object to the wording of the BBC coverage.

    But yes guilty as charged really, the headline alone set me off. Guess my buttons are easily pressed, must be all that gaming.

  4. Stabs

    Oh and another thing.

    As I mentioned earlier we are openly killing children and breaking international law in Iraq and Afghanistan as a matter of our nation’s policy.

    This is real, this is happening.

    Speculating that fantasy might make one violent while we are openly shooting civilians is absurd. I really don’t think we supported the USA’s illegal attack on these countries because our politicians had been fragging too much in video games.

  5. Melmoth

    Speculating that fantasy might make one violent while we are openly shooting civilians is absurd.

    If nothing else, we first need to address the debate as to whether the current generation’s tendency to vigorously jump up and down on any mushrooms that they happen across has a root cause in computer games.

    This country’s supermarket grocery aisles are a mess, and I want to know what the government is going to do about it.

  6. Stabs

    Oh Melmoth, you’re such a fun guy!

    Today’s antispam word is rude. I may also have been so apologies for getting all political.

  7. Zoso Post author

    No worries, it’s a subject that people rightly feel strongly about. Still, to lighten the mood up I’m working on the next piece: “God, eh? What’s that all about.”

  8. Pardoz

    And once again analysis of the media manages to miss the point. Yes, to a degree our media consumption can shape our attitudes, but much more often, and to a much greater degree, the media *reflect* popular attitudes.

    Is playing Call of Duty likely to turn little Johnny or Janey into the next generation’s Klaus Barbie, Pol Pot, or Dick Cheney? No. But an examination of how subjects like torture or killing of civilians is handled in the entertainment media can tell us quite a bit about our culture’s attitudes at a given time.

  9. Bronte

    Arguments such as these are so fucking stupid. Video games don’t make people violent. People who claim video games make people violent, make people violent.

    A movie like Hostel shows human beings quite literally chopping and lobbing off live humans, humans eating live humans, humans using drills to poke holes through live humans. None of that comes under much fire, and simply gets laughed at for being “horror-porn”, or “vile, but curiously entertaining”. A show like 24, which shows a rogue U.S. agent killing, torturing and curbstomping his enemies without mercy receives a plethora of Emmy awards for being a “revolutionary” series. Meanwhile in Arkansas, a man is found to have impregnated his wife with his daughter 40 years ago, his daughter with his granddaughter 20 years ago, and abusing his granddaughter now, and he gets a mental insanity plea bargain.

    WAKE UP! If ‘horror-porn’ and simulated violence in TV shows and movies is ‘art’, and actual crimes against humanity runs circles around the law, it is fucking stupid to criticize and delve on virtual violence and virtual war crimes.

    In fact, why am I even writing this, stupidity of this nature does not merit a repsonse.

  10. Zoso Post author

    @Pardoz That’s a good point, that would be a much more interesting, and probably illuminating, study.

    @Bronte It really is worth reading the report itself, it’s not not saying games make people violent, it’s suggesting games shape players perceptions of subjects they cover, which I tend to disagree with, but it’s not such a crazy premise.

  11. Tesh

    Garbage in, garbage out. We are inevitably a product of our environment, including games, whether “fantasy” or not. It’s all input. The trick is in how it’s processed, aptly alluded to there in the RPS quote.

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