The contrasts between the real life events in Ukraine and war's portrayal in video games gives food for thought.
By Patrick Vuleta 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.