Should war video games be more humanitarian?

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A few weeks ago, an unusual Red Cross effort caught my eye. A special unit in the agency has been working with video-game developers to create in-game scenarios where players face consequences for violating the rules of war. As they explain on their website:

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has publicly stated its interest in the implications of video games that simulate real-war situations and the opportunities such games present for spreading knowledge of the law of armed conflict. The rules on the use of force in armed conflict should be applied to video games that portray realistic battlefield scenes, in the same way that the laws of physics are applied.

I’m having trouble telling for certain whether the agency just wants this to be an option in some video games, or whether it thinks all war games should include consequences — tribunals, courts, imprisonment — for players who go astray from the rules.

Certainly there’s room for video games to be realistic, down to the negative results if you do something you shouldn’t. After all, even in Grand Theft Auto, the supposed Grand Poobah of corrupting video games, bad things happen when you get drunk. But with war games, it entirely depends on the reason you’re playing. If it’s to learn the ins and outs of military law and history, then by all means, make a game as realistic and full of consequences as necessary to be accurate.

But what about all those people who play these games as an escape, for whom warfare and the battlefield is there as a metaphor for something else? What about those who use these games as a kind of interactive theater that produces catharsis? Interrupting that process with a military tribunal could leave those players feeling half-finished and frustrated — not relieved of their aggressions.

The comments on the NPR story about this Red Cross program are especially interesting. This one’s probably my favorite:

If a game violates the laws of nature and the laws of physics what difference does it make that it also violates the laws of the Geneva Convention? I could understand the RC being concerned if these were training video, but they’re not; they’re fantasy.

What do you think? Should war-based video games be more realistic, and feature the kinds of consequences the Red Cross is suggesting?

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