Legal Opinion: The Ukraine standoff, international law, and video games

Russian Troops in the Crimea

By on March 6, 2014 at 10:14 am

Never mind the threat of all-out war, could we make a video game out of the Ukraine crisis? I mean this in the most innocent way possible, as we both know that real lives are at stake. However, Ukraine is demonstrating many rules of war that games often ignore.

Ukraine is tense. Neither side wants to fire the first shot. Both are claiming moral and legal legitimacy. This is real high stakes conflict, where actions are measured, considered. The slightest mistake could set off a powder keg.

Few games portray this drama. Like “horror” games as simple cheap thrills, most action games have the safety permanently set to off. Ammo is plentiful, and before long you’ve machine gunned an entire army, plus their pet endangered tigers. It would be an interesting game, then, that asked you to actually observe the rules of war. Or do games do it anyway?

Han shot first

There’s a great scene in Blackhawk Down. Rather than me try to describe, let’s take a look.

This is repeated throughout, with the Marines always constrained by the rules of engagement. Near the end, a soldier begs a civilian to not pick up a gun. This is great because it shows soldiers can’t simply execute anything that merely looks threatening. From sovereign states down to lowly troopers, everyone needs a just cause. And according to George Lucas, even Han Solo.

Russia is aware. It doesn’t want to shoot, since that would remove any semblance of legitimacy from its actions, and possibly provoke sanctions from other countries rather avoided. Ukraine, though maybe justified in response to a territorial incursion, doesn’t want to shoot either—it would give Russia a self defence justification and prompt a reprisal. With a much weaker military, Ukraine does not want this to happen.

What’s happening effectively is a Mexican standoff. The first to act will lose in some way, either militarily (Ukraine) or morally and financially (Russia). But the stakes are too high to just back down.

Mexican standoffs in games

Such drama is largely missing in games. The celebrated pre-emptive strike is the norm, and the first to shoot is the winner. Sometimes, games do give some tense moments. But a real standoff is where, like in Ukraine, neither side wins outright, and relief can only come from the timely intervention of a third party. One of the best examples comes from Saving Private Ryan (Warning: May be graphic).

Now that’s drama. The gameplay problem, of course, is how to make such a lose-lose situation interesting to the player. What’s needed is consequences for doing wild stuff. SWAT 4 and Splinter Cell both made efforts, though it’s a style of gameplay so far unexplored. But I’m a lawyer, not a game developer, so don’t look at me for ideas.

International law doesn’t matter

Getting back to what I know best, it may be that games actually do portray an accurate, legal version of conflict. Which is to say: any legal or moral legitimacy usually gets dumped when national interests are at stake.

Commentators are right in saying that Russia cannot claim any legal justification for its actions. Although Russia claims self defence, Russian citizens in Ukraine are hardly under the sort of imminent threat that would be needed to make moving troops into the country legally correct.

Yet neither can America take the moral high ground. For all of Obama’s posturing over respect for international law, this is a country that has overseen many flagrant legal violations. Whenever the rest of the world disagrees with America’s stance on whether it really needed to send soldiers into another country, it just uses its Security Council position to bury any censure.

And Russia, like America, has power—most of the EU’s oil supplies, for one. That may well be why the EU has chosen to pursue mediation, not sanctions, leaving America to flail around with trade sanctions that’ll end up hurting itself just as much. Russia is highly unlikely to be discouraged from its current course by a few empty threats. A course that’s more driven by Russia’s desire to right the historical record than anything else.

International law is nice for stopping soldiers blowing up hospitals and letting politicians posture, but when it comes to pursuing the national interest, safeties are off — the typical action game scenario of protagonists doing whatever they please is quite accurate. We could even say that international law doesn’t really matter, and therefore games are closer to the mark than they appear.

12 comments (Leave your own)


I wonder if the comment section may break out into a debate.

“Do games truly depict the truth about the rules of war when national interests are at stake? Discuss”


I really need to re-watch Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan.

On topic though, the risk of making a game that deals with the reality of a situation is that it may not actually be very fun to a lot of people. I think a (somewhat) reasonable comparison is probably playing a sniper in games, I don’t want to spend 2 days getting into position to wait another 2 days to maybe take a shot, I want the timeline condensed so I can derive enjoyment from it.

And for the serious reality of the topic, I hope a solution can be reached that doesn’t involve a large violent conflict.


The film Black Hawk Down waters down or practically ignores incidents of soldiers who shot civilians who weren’t carrying guns. Read the actual book (of the same name) by Mark Bowden which mentions a soldier killing a civilian who was pointing out their position to enemy fighters. Or a woman who was shot to pieces as she was carrying a basket of RPGs. I’m not saying what the soldiers did was right or wrong, it’s just that soldiers don’t necessarily “wait” till a civilian picks up a gun before they open fire.

Most games don’t portray the whole mexican standoff scenario because…well…where’s the fun in that. 99% of the time you’re a badass killing machine. The only series I could think of that encouraged you to avoid killing the bad guys was SWAT 3 and SWAT 4. Awesome games.


It’s definitely a very fragile situation, and you’re right about it being difficult to translate such tension and standoff in a game, because really, it’s all about events leading up to what is either a climax, which would be actual conflict between Ukraine and Russia, or the diffusal of the situation, the latter of which isn’t really something that would entertain people in a video game.

It could be done however, it’d just have to be really well executed, minor events having a lead on effect, with every decision or indecision (I really think that the absence of making a decision leading to consequences is really not touched on in the majority of games with decision making).

Whatever happens though, the ruble is already going down and I don’t see it going back up anytime soon, which means I can get new release games off my Russian contacts via Steam for even cheaper for months to come.


ralphwiggum: The film Black Hawk Down waters down or practically ignores incidents of soldiers who shot civilians who weren’t carrying guns

Not to mention all the times it’s happened outside of that book… for no strategic value at all … either because they made a mistake or felt like it or were angry at a particular village…

Mass effect walked the line pretty well at times I think …


good article

Nasty Wet Smear

I suggested to someone from Europe that Russia would be loath to go on an all out assault against the Ukraine because they would risk being cut off from the international community.

She laughed and pointed out that Russia provides the vast majority of electricity to the areas in surrounding Europe, and that putting them under sanctions and refusing their export products would pretty much mean that her entire country would go dark.


I have actually found that some strategy games can get this sort of thing happening, and I have often found myself at large standoffs with AI in game like Empire Total War where I and the AI spend a good deal of time posturing on a border with armies. Unfortunately, AI is never smart enough and makes a stupid decision eventually, which ruins the moment.

But as other people have said, playing an FPS where you shouldn’t do any of the things normally seen as the ‘fun part’ of an FPS….it would take a hell of a game to pull that off.

In regards to the real world event, in the modern world, Russia would fall apart without the rest of the world, and the rest of the world would have big impacts without Russia. War in modern times is always lose-lose, hence why major powers only ever pick on small countries.


Oddly I think games like DayZ and Rust have show that the more realistic approach can appeal a lot. Timelines are indeed condensed, but you are put in the position of people in a lawless situation, the exact same one that large nation states tend to operate in. It’s been reduced from a Macrocosm to a Microcosm but the same rules apply.

For instance in DayZ you can be wandering around solo to stumble into an armoured convoy of a large group. The choice for them is kill you (most likely), steal from you (unlikely) or help you (very unlikely). The thing is that last option has the chance to add an ally in a very dangerous environment, giving them another gun and increasing the power they can project into that environment. Hence I’ve seen it occur more than a few times.

The standard FPS has issues accommodating it but sandboxes are full of the standoff’s. Some just Kill on Sight, but there are times when both players (or even multiple players) pause for thought as even with a lack of consequences our own conscience often intercedes.


I just want STALKER 2.

Patrick Vuleta


I agree that it probably did happen, but that fits into the overall narrative, that everyone *wants* a just cause, but when the stuff goes down, is happy to ignore it.


I just want STALKER 2.

Get out of here…

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