The International Committee for the Red Cross announced a few weeks ago that it was examining the depiction of war in video games and looking into whether the rules of engagement established by the Geneva and Hague conventions should be applied to such games.
The reasoning behind this, apparently, is that allowing players to do things in video games that would constitute war crimes in real life—such as shooting civilians, unarmed enemy combatants or fellow soldiers—could desensitize people to the atrocity of such violations and normalize this kind of behavior.
I’m all for raising awareness about global human rights issues. Sugar-coating or ignoring the truth has never solved any of the world’s problems.
I’m also in favor of increasing realism in games. Crafting virtual worlds and experiences that accurately reflect the real world and impose consequences for players’ actions can only further the medium as an art form. Games that are truly thought-provoking and intellectually or morally challenging are few and far between, and I would eagerly welcome an influx of more serious, high-concept games into the market.
However, the ICRC should draw the line at raising awareness. Representatives for the committee indicated that, depending on the findings of the investigation, it may ask developers to adhere to international humanitarian laws when making war games or encourage governments to pass regulatory laws. That would be an enormous mistake.
Video games, like any artistic medium, are protected under the First Amendment, and nobody but the developers themselves should have any creative control or influence over their content. If developers want to make a high-concept game that highlights the kinds of mistakes and atrocities that can occur on a battlefield, they should absolutely be allowed and encouraged to do that. But if they want to focus on the mindless run-and-gun action of series like “Call of Duty” or “Battlefield,” that should be fine, too.
Video games offer players an opportunity to do things they never actually could, and not everyone who plays them wants a realistic experience. Some people just want to go online and shoot at their friends to pass the time. I like to believe that gamers are smart enough to realize the things they do in games aren’t always OK to do in real life, and I don’t think there’s any realistic chance that “Modern Warfare 3” is going to turn them into a generation of war criminals. I applaud the ICRC’s interest in promoting these issues, but they shouldn’t try to regulate all the fun out of games that aren’t trying to be serious business.