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War Crimes on Video Games
QUOTE said:LONDON (Nov. 26) -- On Black Friday, geeks across America will head to electronics stores in search of discounted video games. But they should pick carefully. Take home a violent game, and they could be playing with war crimes.
According to a new study by two Swiss human rights groups, TRIAL and Pro Juventute, many combat-heavy games actively encourage players to kill injured soldiers, attack civilians and destroy churches and mosques. As satisfying as these actions might be for players, they flagrantly violate real-life criminal and humanitarian law.
The organizations reached this guilty verdict with the help of three attorneys, who watched gamers blast their way through 19 titles, including recent hits like "Call of Duty 4," "Army of Two" and "Metal Gear Solid 4." Each time a player flouted the Geneva Convention or another international treaty, the legal team took note.
Their final report reads like Radovan Karadzic's rap sheet. "Call of Duty 4," a first-person shooter set in Russia and the Middle East, is accused of allowing gamers to "attack civilian buildings with no limits in order to get rid of all the enemies present in the town who are on roof tops ... Under [International Humanitarian Law], the fact that combatants/fighters are present in a town does not make the entire town a military objective."
And what about "Far Cry 2"? This mercenary-on-a-mission bloodbath allows players "to shoot a person who is surrendering," which "amounts to a violation of the prohibition of attacking those who have laid down their arms." Of the 19 games examined, only one -- "Close Combat: First to Fight" -- received a verdict of not guilty.
Unlike real-world war crimes, of course, this virtual havoc doesn't leave anyone dead, limbless or living as a refugee. But the report's backers worry these games could damage public perceptions of what is and isn't acceptable in combat, leading people to think that nothing is off limits in modern warfare.
"Young people are generally very good at telling the difference between play and real life," says Michael Marugg, director of policy affairs at Pro Juventute. "But some people are not so skilled at making those distinctions."
David Jenkins, who writes about the gaming world for Gamesindustry.biz and other sites, disagrees. In his view, Marugg underestimates the intelligence of players, and their ability to judge right from wrong. "People play these games because they know they're not real," he says. "They break speed limits in racing games because they can't and won't do that in real life. And they play shoot 'em ups because they don't want to become a soldier and actually kill people. This is just fun, harmless escapism."
Marugg says that Pro Juventute has no interest in quashing the sort of enjoyment Jenkins describes. Instead, the organization hopes to encourage game developers to create more responsible products. "Games have always had strict rules, just look at chess," he says. "So why can't video games follow similar rules?" Marugg adds that Pro Juventute would like to see consumers given more information about the content of games. If a gamer knows that a specific title plays fast and loose with (virtual) human rights law, for example, he or she might decline to buy it.
Jenkins, though, doesn't see why developers should change their ways: "The fact that we have a healthy turtle population, that plumbers aren't going around jumping on people's heads and kids aren't murdering each other with flamethrowers, all tells me that video games don't influence the way we behave."
Other experts dismiss the report's recommendations as little more than cultural snobbism. "Nobody would dare suggest that a classic war novel or movie should be organized around a moral principle," says Tanya Krzywinska, professor in screen studies at Britain's Brunel University and president of the Digital Games Research Association. "Can you imagine what would have happened if Francis Ford Coppola had been asked to make 'Apocalypse Now' according to the Geneva Convention?"
Next time, Krzywinska suggests, the report's authors could investigate something slightly more worthy. "We should really be looking at whether our governments follow the Geneva Convention," she says, "not a few gamers."
War Crimes on Video Games