When Playing Call of Duty 4, Don’t Forget to Consult the Laws of War

by Julian Ku

I don’t know what I think about this report by two Switzerland-based NGOs analyzing a number of popular video games for their consistency with rules of international humanitarian law (h/t kotaku).  Apparently, many video games encourage blatant and unrepentant violations of the laws of war.

In the scenes, there seems to be no assessment of proportionality in the attacks realised in civilian areas and we do not know whether precautionary measures were taken to minimize civilian casualties and damage to civilian objects. However, in a real life situation, one is often confronted with similar circumstances: regular armed forces and irregular armed groups are very unlikely to give any information about the planning of the preparation of military operations to international organisations or human rights bodies. Without such information, it is difficult to establish that a military operation was not proportional, in particular whether the attacker took all the precautionary measures necessary to avoid, and in any event to minimize incidental loss or civilian life, injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.

In addition to the extensive destruction, some of the scenes portray the members of “Bad Company” taking gold and “treasures” found in the civilian houses they have just destroyed. Upon obtaining them, the players get points. These actions amount to pillage, which is strictly prohibited under IHL and thus have also been labelled as “strong”. This illegal action is confirmed in one of the scenes where you can hear a member saying that “Pillaging is an old war tradition.” Pillage is considered as a war crime both in international and non- international armed conflicts.

There is something to this. Check out this photo from Call of Duty 4. Looks like a war crime to me. Do we need international law requiring video game makers to follow international law in their video games?  Sure, as long as this resulted in lucrative consulting gigs for law professors….


13 Responses

  1. Wow, its funny you posted this today.
    Coincidentally, just yesterday I was watching my younger brother sit behind his game console and play one of the games in the Call of Duty series. I watched appalled as he worked his virtual soldier through the favelas in Rio or pastoral settlements in Afghanistan, meanwhile shooting up prisoners of war, injured soldiers and bystanding civilians.
    Of course I had to give him an elaborate lesson on IHL and IHRL, which was quickly dismissed with the argument: “you’re just a law nerd!”

  2. As a counterpoint, consider Chris Suellentrop’s review of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, which he describes as “a first-person shooter that plays as a tragedy, not a power fantasy”:

    This pivot occurs when, for reasons that only become sort of clear near the very end of the game (but that remain ludicrous throughout), one of the game’s characters is asked to go undercover for the CIA as an ultranationalist Russian terrorist. As part of a group of four men with guns, you walk toward a security line full of civilians at a Russian airport. And then you kill them.

    I’ll admit it—I pulled the trigger. The game had instructed me to follow the lead of my fellow terrorists, and I had been told that preserving my undercover status was important for the country. But after an introductory gun burst, I couldn’t do it anymore. It was the most powerful emotional experience any video game has ever given me. I don’t know that I cried, but I was knocked off balance by emotions that I thought I had tucked away. As the travelers screamed and fled from the indiscriminate slaughter, I strolled through the airport. I didn’t fire my weapon anymore, but I watched the three Russian terrorists kill. One of the men shot a passenger as he crawled along the blood-streaked floor and pleaded for his life.

    And then I started shooting again. I thought that a guard was going to kill me, so I went after him first. The bullets hit his corpse—he was shot first by one of the other men—and it shuddered on the ground. As we approached a team of riot police, I thought, You don’t have to do this. You can stop. You can refuse. You can walk away. I didn’t.

    For a while, though, I sat there. I picked up a riot shield and tried to hide behind it and let the others do the killing. That didn’t work. Then I picked up a gun and tried to fire it into the skull of the lead terrorist. The game wouldn’t let me do that, either, wouldn’t even let me shoot. The rules of play were clear: If you want to go forward, if you want to keep playing, you have to kill these cops. Do something awful with me, the game asked. And I did.

    After that scene, what had played like an old-fashioned shooting gallery was now morally fraught. As the war moved into Northern Virginia with firefights at a gas station and a strip mall, I felt new sympathy for the people whose streets I’d earlier traveled with exhilaration. As I battled the invading Russians, I had an awareness—as I’ve had in no other first-person shooter—that lives were at stake. I was still killing people.

    The thrill of battle was replaced with the fog of war, as it became difficult to tell who was friendly and who wasn’t.

    The review is available at Slate here: http://www.slate.com/id/2235774/

  3. I enjoyed reading the report by the Swiss NGO’s about the violations of international law in various first-person-shooter video games.  It was an interesting outside perspective of the video game culture.  I find the conclusion a bit suspect though.  Suggesting that video game companies try to comply with international law on account of the possibility of gamers violating international law due to inspiration by their games is a bit of a reach.  The likelihood of a gamer committing torture or pillaging because he saw it in a game is extremely remote.  Game developers and publishers include these elements in the game to create an more engaging story. If the NGO’s suggestions were followed, we might as well cut violations of international law from film and literature also.  Such a limit of speech and art is ridiculous and should be ignored.

  4. I agree that it seems a bit ridiculous to demand that action taking place in games complies with IHL – just as we don’t demand that it complies with domestic law. However, I think the report does raise two interesting issues.

    First, while the players themselves may rarely be involved in real conflict, it is arguable that their attitudes to conflict and the limits placed on warfare is being shaped by their experience in games (similar to the controversy over 24 and torture). So, perhaps we should be thinking about the detrimental impact the games are having on the public’s view the law of war.

    Second, as games increase in realism, it’s going to become increasingly controversial to include war scenarios that were perhaps easier to accept when the action was abstracted by bad graphics and crude technology. Just as we reject the idea of a game including rape as part of the game play, is it really ok to have players engaging in extremely violent/sadistic/retrograde acts such as torture (in very realistic conditions).

    Suellentrop seems to think that this isn’t such a concern as merely engaging in the action produces a sanctioning effect. But I’m not so sure this holds for the majority of players.

  5. In a class discussion last week, the concept of how culpable someone should be when he or she was “just following orders” came up.  Your discussion of Call of Duty 4 (even though it is just a game) reminded me of this, particularly where the report acknowledges the unlikelihood that persons involved in real life situations have accurate information on the planning of proportionate responses. 

    Although the report notes that international organizations and human rights groups are unlikely to have accurate information with which they can gauge the proportionality of military responses, how likely is it that individuals below the highest command have relevant information on which they can make a decision?  If they don’t have all the necessary information, can they be held liable?  In the previously mentioned discussion, I suggested that individual liability for acts of war or inhumanity may be the only way to stop future barbaric occurrences.  However, I don’t know how comfortable I can be with holding individuals liable when they had little or no information.  

    Apparently discussions of Call of Duty 4 can spark my thoughts regarding real life culpability in war time situations. 

  6. The point of these games is the sense of realism. So mandatory IHL would seem to be out of the question.

    That said, the US Army runs a substantial military video game as a recruitment tool. Maybe someone should review that for IHL?

  7. Disagreeing with an earlier response…
    The fact that much of our young culture today is indoctrinated with plots and story lines from movies, television shows, and now video games it seems increasingly likely that these sort of plot developments and exposure to violations of International law could very easily have a lasting effect. Being a young male I have several friends who have joined the armed forces simply because they enjoyed the idea of being able to be a real life “First Person Shooter” like the characters in video games from the same ilk of the “Call of Duty” Series. As such I do not see it as a far cry to think that individuals bombarded with images of torture (Fox series 24 and video games like this) will not see the potential for serious international issues stemming from say water-boarding. The story lines in games, movies, and television can lead these individuals in a formative time in their life to believe these are just acceptable tactics aimed at achieving a successful mission.
    Ultimately it is not the responsibility of game designers to delve into the issues surrounding international law and the laws of war when designing these games, however the implications of an entire generation being indoctrinated to believe positive ends (winning the battle, getting the information, killing the terrorists) justify the breaking of International laws could have major implications. Remember the youth watching these shows and playing these video games are the individuals that will be voting or already are voting in our countries elections. Meaning they may not see any issue with voting for a President who wholly endorses the use of torture in violation of International Law. (I understand that this is hyperbole but it is intended to make a point) These games may not lead to individuals committing these atrocities first hand, however it could easily lead to an entire voting group viewing these major concerns as non-issues.

  8. I myself have never been much of a “gamer”, as they call them, but have become familiar with the obsession with video games that supposedly simulate real life war situations. But therein certainly lies the problem, such games are advertised and perceived as simulating “real life”. There can be no doubt, as both SMM and Mr. Hegberg note, however, that there is no responsibility on the part of the game designers to delve into international law (though one would think they might personally feel a responsibility to), and furthermore it is ridiculous to think that there even should be. While I often try to shy away from relying on the slippery slope argument, it is instructive to think about what might happen if we were to heed the NGO’s arguments. It would necessarily follow that we should strip any potential violation of “international law” from the arts as a whole (even though I recognize it is a stretch to view these games as art). The link between playing a video game and going out in battle to commit violations of international law that you saw on the video game is just far too attenuated to have any real meaning.

  9. I watched a  documentary about American solders in Iraq. Since they have nothing better to do in their bases, they play these shooters all day long. I don’t say that it greatly influences their sense of humanity, but it must have some adverse effect.

  10. One could also make the argument that increased realism in games related to war, and the artificial horrors to which they expose the player, are beneficial in that they force players to confront moral decisions and tragic circumstances that actually do occur on the battlefield.  Whereas earlier games had the enemy drop as soon as you shot them, newer games portray graphically the pain of someone who has just been wounded.  You see them crawling along the ground in agony and screaming, rather than simply dropping and lying peacefully on the floor.  People talk about individuals being shot in combat all the time, but if you show these same people a picture of what a bullet actually does to human flesh, they are (understandably) horrified.  Actually inflicting what looks to be a very realistic depiction of pain on another human being, even if that human being is artificial, confronts players with a moral choice.  I have played a number of games and watched people play games a number of times, and while it is true that sometimes people like to blow off steam by going on a rampage every now and then, in my experience, most players actually do make what we would consider to be the “right” choice (i.e., not targeting civilians, not shooting friendly forces, etc.). I have seen people actually restart an entire mission in a game because they accidentally shot a dog and couldn’t stand the depiction of a dog realistically yelping in pain.

    Accordingly, those interested in incorporating international humanitarian law into gaming would be better off not forcing IHL as a ruleset (in which the player would either be explicitly penalized for violating IHL or simply not be able to at all) but rather offering players the choice, while depicting realistically the effects of violating IHL.  There is a huge difference between losing points because you injured a civilian and actually watching [artificial] kids and dogs die vividly on screen because of your actions. This is generally quite far from most players’ conception of a fun time, and they will actively attempt to avoid that outcome.

  11. Well, I would point out the main problem is the fundamental conflict of making a realistic game and making a fun game.

    While many people find the action and sense of danger to be enjoyable, few would be willing, as a game experience, to finish it all with a lengthy court martial proceeding as a result of their actions in-game.  Furthermore, the more realistic you make the violence, the more unsettling it becomes.  Shooting terrorists in the heat of battle is exciting, watch them bleed out on the floor over the course of 2 minutes is a very different experience.

    Personally, as a matter of game design, I appreciate it when game designers allow you to do actions that would derail the game, if only to go to a Game Over screen with an explanation of why you wouldn’t be able to do that, or a brief scene showing the consequences.  Simply not letting you shoot someone in game is kind of the easy way out.

  12. But, but – it’s a game! This is not a trite point.

    COD4  is not posing as an educational programme. As a training module for the US army.

    It’s a game – albeit also one of the largest cultural releases in recent time – and should be treated as such.

    Most people do know the difference. Sure, some may have their moral outlook affected, but that goes for all culture, art…

    Down this road lies serious danger. Do you really wish to start regulating culture? Because I hear that rock and roll is pretty damaging to the morals of our youth. And that newfangled cinematograph is far too lifelike to allow the public to experience without a prior reading of the constitution and the ten commandments.

    As for the printing press? It’s a menace… without proper church regulation, who knows what the peasants might start thinking and writing.

    I don’t doubt that there are issues to consider here – parental control, corrolary education in schools and so forth.

    But let art and culture flourish. It won’t always be motherhood and apple pie, but on balance this is a good think. Democracies can handle it; and are the richer for it.

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  1. […] Developers Should Stop Being Lazy and Using War Crimes in Lieu of Plot November 23, 2009 Via Opinio Juris, a Swiss NGO has produced a report on the promotion of violations of international humanitarian law […]