Should You Be Allowed to Use Chemical Weapons in a Video Game?

Why the Geneva Convention doesn't work for Call of Duty.

No more torturing prisoners. No more shooting civilians. No more blowing up hospitals.

Your next Call of Duty game might be a bit less colorful -- or less ethically challenged -- if the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has its way. 

The ICRC is now asking video game publishers to incorporate the laws of war into their games. The organization makes clear that it is not calling for a ban on violence in video games, nor does it consider -- contrary to earlier reports in 2011 -- that war crimes in video games equate to real crimes. But it does want games to penalize players for violating the laws of war. "The ICRC is suggesting that as in real life, these games should include virtual consequences for people's actions and decisions," notes the Red Cross website. "Gamers should be rewarded for respecting the law of armed conflict and there should be virtual penalties for serious violations of the law of armed conflict, in other words war crimes."

The ICRC fears that the next generation of soldiers will have their notions of ethical battlefield behavior shaped by video games. "Certain game scenarios could lead to a trivialization of serious violations of the law of armed conflict," the organization says. "The fear is that eventually such illegal acts will be perceived as acceptable behavior." Such virtual behavior includes "the use of torture, particularly in interrogation, deliberate attacks on civilians, the killing of prisoners or the wounded, attacks on medical personnel, facilities, and transport such as ambulances, or that anyone on the battlefield can be killed." 

How widespread the problem is can be seen in an article on game site Gameranx, which identified 10 egregious cases of war crimes in video games, such as executing wounded prisoners in Call of Duty 2, genocide in Gears of War 3, and using torture against captives in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.

But the ICRC is not calling for removing war crimes from games, on the grounds that including them is actually educational, allowing players to make the same difficult choices that real combatants face. "We do not suggest that games be sanitized of all illegal acts," ICRC spokesman Bernard Barrett said in an email to Foreign Policy. "Also, games must remain fun and challenging. A boring game is of little interest to the players, to the manufacturers or to us. We would prefer that players not be required to commit illegal acts to move to another level or be rewarded in some other way."

The ICRC has been working with Bohemia Interactive Studios, which publishes the Armed Assault series of first-person-shooter games (equally noteworthy is that Virtual Battlespace 2, the militarized version of Armed Assault, is the main tactical training game for the U.S. and foreign militaries). Bohemia Interactive Studios CEO Marek Spanel notes that Armed Assault has long had a feature where friendly troops will attack a player that attacks civilians or other friendly soldiers.

Barratt says the ICRC has also met with unspecified video game publishers at trade shows, and "we also know of other companies that have incorporated IHL [international humanitarian law] principles without having contacted us." However, none of the major video game publishers FP tried to contact, including Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, would say whether their games will reward players for heeding the laws of war.

There is precedent for the Red Cross campaign against virtual war crimes, in the same way that various groups focus on the portrayal of minorities, or smoking cigarettes, or wearing seat belts, in movies. The belief is that fictional behavior affects real-life behavior.

But limiting wanton violence in video games faces major hurdles. One reason is that there is too much money at stake in a video game market that is expected to gross $93 billion this year. Not that publishers directly make money off of soldiers shooting civilians, but analysts say that they are unlikely to tamper with a cash cow unless prompted to by government regulation, or unless lawsuits and news stories make it prohibitive to continue the status quo.

Then there is the whole question of whether video games actually induce or promote violent behavior, despite the hand-wringing whenever it turns out that a psycho gunman like Anders Breivik plays games. While some researchers conclude that virtual violence leads to the real thing, others dispute that assessment. Indeed, Barrett could not cite any cases where virtual war crimes led to real ones.

So why isn't ICRC concerned with movies, when a film like Inglorious Basterds portrays enough war crimes to fill a courtroom at The Hague? "In video games, as opposed to films or books, the players are making active decisions whether to shoot or not," Barratt says. Indeed, roleplaying is the ultimate appeal of gaming, especially shooter games which purport to put you into the shoes of a modern soldier on a contemporary battlefield. Yet while the Red Cross says it is not concerned about violence in fantasy or science-fiction games, it's hard not to wonder why the virtual crime wave in Grand Theft Auto V is any less morally corrosive than Battlefield 4.

When the ICRC and others worry about violence in video games, they focus on first-person-shooter games such as Call of Duty. Yet there is often appalling violence in Risk-like strategy games. In the popular empire-builder computer game Civilization, it is often easier to raze a captured city than occupy it. The best way to neutralize a rival power is to systematically destroy every one of their cities in what amounts to genocide. And what about a World War I simulation game like "The Entente" that allows the use of mustard gas, just as the historical combatants used? Would the games still be historical if players were penalized for using chemical weapons?

Programming the laws of war into a computer game is difficult when those laws themselves have so many loopholes. Hospitals can be bombed in real life if they are being used for military purposes. Civilians can be attacked if they are deemed to be acting as combatants, and nations and their lawyers have become adept at justifying such attacks. International law speaks of using force that is "proportionate" and not "indiscriminate," but how does a software developer code these concepts into computer games when not even lawyers can agree on exactly what they mean?

Which brings up the final problem: the difficulty of incorporating morality into video games that are all about action, not ethics. Games, like war, tend to elevate winning above all else, which is why players are always searching for ways to exploit loopholes in games. And if there is a loophole in a video game -- and there is always is -- then players will take advantage of it. When Grand Theft Auto V penalizes players who behave violently with a crackdown by the cops, does it lead to more ethical behavior, or just inspire players to find more clever ways of killing and robbing? There should not be a reason for shooting civilians on a virtual battlefield. But if there is a reason, and it can be done without consequences or just for "fun," some players will find a way to make it happen.

Video games can teach tactics. They can't teach morality.


Democracy Lab

Why the Carrot Isn't Working, Either

The Chinese government thinks it can thwart unrest among ethnic minorities by raising their incomes. But prosperity doesn't buy loyalty.

On Oct. 28, a car crashed in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, killing two innocent bystanders and injuring about 40 others. The incident appears to have been an act of terrorism, albeit quite an unsophisticated one, perpetrated by ethnic Uighurs, a Turkic Muslim population mostly living in China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR). This is the first time in recent history that Uighurs have engaged in political violence outside the XUAR. The incident seems to be a product of the substantially escalating tension between Uighurs and the Chinese state.

The Uighurs view the XUAR as their homeland, an assertion that has long fueled tensions between them and the Chinese state. This tension has been on the rise over the last twenty years as the People's Republic of China rolled out controversial policies that emphasize integrating Uighurs into the Chinese state. (In the photo above, Uighurs living in Turkey burn a Chinese flag to commemorate the July 5 incident.) The government has used heavy-handed measures to impose this integration (sticks), but it has placed its largest bets on the hope that rising prosperity will encourage loyalty among Uighurs (carrots). Unfortunately, China is guided by an outdated development strategy, and it's only generating more instability.

China's most controversial integration measures suppress the Uighur culture and violate the group's human rights. Since the mid-1990s, the Chinese state has pursued policies that limit the Uighurs' ability to freely practice Islam and prevent all forms of political organization and expression in the XUAR. This has led to hundreds of arrests on political charges of "illegal religious activity," "separatism," and "terrorism," scores of which have ended in executions. More recently, the Chinese government has adopted education policies that force all students to study in Mandarin Chinese while limiting access to education in the Uighur language and reducing the publication and broadcasting of materials in Uighur.

But these heavy-handed cultural transformation measures tell only part of the story. The Chinese government has also undertaken a gigantic economic development plan for the XUAR, and has targeted rural Uighurs to partake in education and industrial work projects at institutions and factories in China's interior. These "softer" efforts to integrate Uighurs have not only failed to ease tensions between Uighurs and the state, but indeed appear to have exacerbated them.

This has caused frustration among Chinese policymakers and citizens, who view these efforts as a benevolent program to provide Uighurs with new opportunities and better livelihoods. But the Uighurs' resistance should not be surprising. In fact, in the modern era, many states have attempted to pacify restive minority populations through economic development, only to bear similar results.

The idea of modernization as a way to unify nations goes back several centuries. The nation-states of Europe we know today -- Germany, England, France -- emerged as unified entities from their fragmented forbears through the advance of communication and transportation technology, along with concerted efforts by state leaders. Modern states not only began to collect taxes and raise armies, but also sponsored national systems of education that propagated state ideology and instructed pupils in a single national dialect. Economic development birthed loyalty to the state and fellow-feeling among citizens. As suggested by both Marxist and free market modernization theorists, economic stability and prosperity was thought to yield harmonious, unified states.

In the 20th century, would-be state builders sought to accomplish in a few decades what took centuries to take hold in Europe, using top-down planning and industrialization. This approach was effective in achieving rapid growth, but it was less successful in establishing a unified body politic. In Turkey, leaders attempted to use a strategy of economic development through education and infrastructure to integrate minority Kurds into the new state, even as they banned the Kurdish language and suppressed its culture. This strategy only generated a violent movement for secession. Today, the Turkish government has been pressed to accommodate the still-strong Kurdish identity through new reforms.

The Soviet Union also relied on development to integrate the many peoples of its far-flung empire. After the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks sought to eliminate national identity altogether -- and with it the threat of anti-Soviet nationalism -- by delivering material progress. Increased well-being would bind people to the Soviet regime, while macroeconomic growth would eliminate differences between nations, ultimately transforming Latvians and Uzbeks into exclusively Soviet subjects. As we now know, this did not work out as planned: 70 years of development led to remarkable improvements in living standards, but it did not stifle nationalism. It was the wealthiest inhabitants who were the most vehement in opposing the Soviet Union.

Why doesn't prosperity buy loyalty?

First, economic development, rather than causing political passivity, tends to result in greater political engagement. Scholars of modernization theory recognized decades ago that urbanization, literacy, and rising incomes gave people greater means to develop their own interests and to advocate for them. Rather than expressing gratitude to the state that made their political consciousness possible, newly empowered classes would demand more accountable governments and sometimes overthrow them. In simplified form, this is the story of democratization in Europe in the 19th century. It is also the story of anti-colonial liberation movements, whose leaders emerged from the middle classes that were educated under colonial systems of rule.

A second reason development fails to quell nationalism is that it occurs unevenly, especially when it is rapid and state-led. The benefits of centralized investment, even if nominally intended for the minority masses, often fail to reach their targets. Instead, state largesse tends to fall disproportionately into the hands of well-connected elites (who may be settlers in minority regions rather than minority representatives themselves) or to benefit certain (usually urban) areas over others, which can increase overall inequality between majority and minority ethnic groups and exacerbate resentments. Prosperity and development lead more citizens of the majority group to settle in minority regions, often marginalizing minority groups in areas where they were once the primary inhabitants. When people are marginalized both economically and culturally, their exclusion heightens their awareness of difference from the majority and provides a unifying cause around which they can rally.

A third reason for the failure of the modernization strategy is that human beings tend to value certain ideals in addition to, and often above, material well-being. Money is nice, but the desire for justice, fairness, self-determination, or dignity can be a stronger driver of human behavior. Although the protests of the Arab uprisings were partly about unemployment and frustration with elite corruption, the demonstrators' slogans appealed to more abstract virtues in pursuit of a better society. "Bread, freedom and dignity" became a rallying cry in Egypt's Tahrir Square. Expression of these values is usually even more pronounced in movements involving culturally marginalized groups, who react to official suppression by asserting their language, culture, and traditions.

This brings us back to the Uighurs. The Chinese government's intensive development plan has only inspired conflict in the XUAR as Uighurs become increasingly marginalized in their own homeland. Development has in many cases displaced traditional Uighur communities, the most well known example being the destruction of the culturally significant, medieval city of Kashgar. In other cases the government has forcibly relocated Uighurs to accommodate large development projects. Additionally, China's policies have encouraged an influx of Han Chinese migrants into the region in pursuit of economic opportunity, reducing the Uighur share of the population. Finally, Uighurs are increasingly discriminated against for employment in urban areas, as the economic benefits of the region's development flow mostly to Han Chinese.

China's development efforts in the XUAR utilize an outdated top-down model of development that betters the region's GDP, but not the lives of its average citizens. As a result, many Uighurs perceive China's development plan as an attack on their very existence.

The failure of state-led development to ease ethnic tensions in the XUAR should not be taken as evidence that development can never mitigate conflict and unrest. However, when the politics of identity are involved, development planning must include all ethnic groups and communities and promote a fair distribution of wealth. In the absence of these considerations, China will continue to be confronted by the perverse consequences of its development policies. Attacks like the one in Tiananmen Square may become all too common.