Violent video games as teaching tools


Video games have long been condemned for excessive violence and gore, but such games may also provide some teachable moments for gamers and military alike.

Scholars, humanitarian groups, and even military officials say that the makers of video and computer games answer a “call of duty” to incorporate the international rules of warfare and human rights into their battlefield scenarios.

While critics of some of the most popular games in the world claim games that allow players to commit violations of accepted international law, such as shooting wounded prisoners, torturing, detainees, or using prohibited chemical weaponry to defeat enemy forces – all of which result in no negative consequences.

“I’ve got to find something that’s going to prepare my Marines for something that many of them probably haven’t done before, and that we can’t really reproduce that they are going to feel in combat in training,” said Col. Kurt Sanger, a judge advocate and law instructor in the U.S. Marine Corps. “That’s why I think adding technology and video games and virtual reality is such a valuable tool the Department of Defense can now count on, because it can get closer to reality.”

Col. Sanger was recently on a panel of speakers, at the American Society of International Law’s annual meeting in Washington, who discussed how video games could be redesigned to address issues like the Law of Armed Conflict and the standards of international humanitarian law.

The industry of video and computer games is now worth upwards of $45 billion, and has an overwhelming number of gamers among the youth. These factors were argued over the panel, which then decided that video games could be a serious business—for better or for worse.

“I think [people] just don’t understand how important this is,” said Gary Brown, professor of cybersecurity at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. Brown has also been a leading voice in arguing that human rights and the Geneva Conventions should be built into video game stories and scenarios, thus teaching players about history and moral consciousness.

After being contacted by the Red Cross, one video game company revised its gameplay to penalize players who shoot civilians indiscriminately.

“We know a lot of military off-duty play video games, and a lot of young men and women who are likely to be recruited play video games,” Red Cross spokesman Bernard Barrett told NPR in a 2013 interview. “And it’s also a chance to sensitize the general public so they can tell their leaders, whether they be military or political, that’s not acceptable or that is acceptable.”

The laws of armed conflict are well developed; military recruits must be conditioned to obey such laws. Col. Sanger cites such concepts as legitimate military objectives – the use of force, distinguishing between friend and foe, and the diminishing factor of unnecessary casualties or damage.

“These are the kinds of things that I would hope that the developers of video games are concentrating on to help us prepare for combat and put us in situations where, in training, we can make these choices,” the colonel said.

Assistant director of the computer game design program at Northern Virginia’s George Mason University Seth Hudson said some game designers have already received the message loud and clear.

“There are a few games out there that really do portray war from the other side,” he said. “There [are] also games that uphold the principles of international humanitarian law, but they’re not explicitly stated.”

Citing Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Hudson explains the game’s opening features a training scenario in which players attempt to distinguish between enemies and civilian targets. The game, however, does offer a controversial level where players, acting as terrorists, shoot civilians in an airport terminal. Please note: players are given multiple chances to skip this level without being penalized.

Hudson describes the above level as a “blatant violation of international law,” but does further note that a unique characteristic of such games is their interactivity and the ability for players to make their own decisions. In Modern Warfare 2 it is possible to play and complete the level as a terrorist without firing a single shot as the non-playable characters do it all.

Developers should put these types of choices into games, but games of this nature or magnitude should not be censored for depicting violations of international humanitarian law.

“If realism is the goal of these games, with their photorealism and the sound, then the LOAC, in this case, equals opportunity.”

Of course, there is concern and debate whether that adhering to international law and humanitarian restrictions could limit the creativity of game developers. But, with my understanding, giving players a choice on how to play the game is the key.

Daniel Greenberg, president of Media Rez, a software and game development studio based in Washington, states, “Players love consequences.”

Greenberg played a video of multiple examples of war crimes being committed in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, including destruction of property, the capture of religious buildings, landmark destruction, the use of outlawed weapons, killing civilians, the deployment of poisonous gas and more, all of which was set to the tune of the “1812 Overture”.

“I’m not concerned with just how all-pervasive the violations are, but I’m concerned with how designers deal with it and how designers have the players think about what they’re doing, or not,” said Mr. Greenberg.

There is no link between violent video games and real-world scenario violence; despite the long withstanding debate on the subject. Players enjoy experiencing the consequences of their actions in game, even when there is an option to omit just features, players are apt to keep them enabled because it brings more challenges to playing.

The key is to give players negative consequences for excessive usage of violence; this leads  to linking and building concepts like human rights and the laws of war into video games, even the ones deemed the most violent.

“Consequences are vital to gameplay,” said Mr. Greenberg, “because consequences are what honor the choices of players. When players feel that their choices are being honored in the game, they love the game.”

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