We look at how such an idea could even feasibly work.
By Patrick Vuleta on October 10, 2013 at 11:23 am
I’m a big fan of The Witcher. Decisions really mean something. Save a villager, or slay a monster. Your choice dictates whether you shag now, or shag later. Consequences.
The Red Cross would like to see this gameplay in first person shooters. Arguing that games allow active decisions by players, they want to see real consequences and penalties for war crimes committed in game to raise awareness for the legal and humanitarian issues real soldiers deal with.
This is a noble goal, and games have done this successfully before. However, there are several hurdles in the way of this becoming standard within games, not the least that it requires cherry picking which laws you obey, and which you allow players to brazenly breach.
The downside to being Hitler
The Red Cross are especially concerned over four particular war crimes that appear in some games: Killing civilians, torture during interrogation, killing prisoners or the wounded, and attacking medical personnel (damn overpowered medics).
They argue that that since games involve active decisions, you should not be rewarded for deliberately committing these virtual crimes. Instead, you should take an in-game penalty. The Red Cross wants gamers to be aware of the humanitarian side of things: War isn’t just blowing everything to pieces with reckless abandon.
Before we get too indignant, however, the Red Cross does say video games should depict these crimes where appropriate. This isn’t censorship. They believe games can educate on the realities of war. They also qualify that all this only apply to war games with realistic settings. So while you could commit all those crimes in Fallout, it’s too far from reality to be a concern.
I get where they’re coming from. With games often being the most vivid depiction of war most people will encounter, there is cause for concern that players develop a balanced appreciation for what war really is. While there is no evidence that games incite violence, there is plenty of evidence that media can lead to a skewed understanding of a subject.
However, games often sacrifice realism in the name of fun. This is where laws start to break down.
What about other war crimes?
The first problem arises when the game has you deliberately committing crimes as part of gameplay. Two examples are Modern Warfare’s famous airport level, and even the possibility of shooting hostages in Counter Strike. But when you’re a terrorist, that’s kind of the point. How do games avoid rewarding players for crimes if they put players in the shoes of the bad guys?
Another thing is destructible terrain. DICE makes a very big deal about being able to destroy anything and everything in Battlefield 4. Bored defending a flag? Blow up a wall and admire the physics. Yet wanton destruction of property without tactical justification is a crime. Once the round is over you don’t want civilians having to deal with a Chernobyl when they could have had a mere Three Mile Island.
And what about Article 42 of the Geneva Conventions. You just downed an enemy plane, so you circle around to finish the job so the ejecting pilot can’t go cap a flag on foot. Wrong! You need to let the pilot parachute safely to land, giving them a chance to surrender. Fortunately Battlefield is let off the hook here. Wanting to respawn with their plane, most players will sooner fly into a tank at ramming speed than bail out.
Then there’s the prohibitions on weapons like clusterbombs, blinding guns, and excessive use of flamethrowers. However, these are only forbidden if you’re not playing as America, which has not signed this treaty. This introduces balancing problems.
Would it be fun?
So some practicality issues arise. But the real question is whether it would be fun. Games must always be entertaining.
There is a market for these games. ArmA 3 has your troops shoot back at you if you get too trigger happy. And remember SWAT 4? You could fail missions for killing people. I loved that game. I also see potential for these elements in wave defence games like Mass Effect 3. Some grey moral choices could well fit within that style of game, and make the matches a little less shooty, and more RPG. Having to decide whether to rescue civilians, or blow up reapers on the fly could be fun.
However, adding these choices to the more arcadey FPS presents problems. Most of these games manage to avoid the truly egregious war crimes anyway. You can’t shoot civilians or hospitals or make hard moral choices in multiplayer Battlefield. You can’t, of course, because adding these elements would just slow Battlefield down. No one wants to have to skirt around a hospital when you could just not put the bloody thing on the map in the first place.