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This was always going to happen, wasn’t it!

Since the very dawn of video-game time, right after the binary Big Bang when a primordial Pong paddled its way onto TV screens, the games industry has been engaged in an evolutionary arms race chasing one thing above all others: reality.

From pixels to polygons, 8-bit to 8th generation, 2D to 1080p, reality has become an increasingly elusive quarry. One that game-makers have pursued relentlessly across the burgeoning technological landscape with the kind of obsessive zeal required of those questing for a Holy Grail.

Vast quantities of the medium’s most valuable natural resource, creativity, have been syphoned off in service of mimicry.

The problem with this laudable endeavour is that, to date, the question of, “How do we make this virtual gun/car/person virtually indistinguishable from this actual gun/car/person?” is one that’s been approached almost unquestioningly. Creativity has been syphoned off in service of mimicry, yet rarely is there consideration of the inherent duty of care that comes with the power to imitate.

Game developers have finally been called out on their responsibilities by someone with an abundance of credibility: the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Aside from occasionally turning a walk down my local high street into a guilt trip gauntlet by using grasping chuggers, the Red Cross performs exclusively saintly work. So, it stands to reason that the organisation attracted a fair amount of media attention when it recently announced that:

“The ICRC believes there is a place for international humanitarian law in video games… 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.”

Now, before you start to worry that your renegade Commander Shepard is about to be indicted as some sort of interstellar Radovan Karadžić, the Red Cross makes it abundantly clear that it’s only concerned with:

 “…video games that simulate real-war situations.”

And that:

“Our intention is not to spoil player’s enjoyment… We would like to see the law of armed conflict integrated into games so that players have a realistic experience and deal first hand with the dilemmas facing real combatants on real battlefields.”

All of this sounds like a perfectly reasonable request. People’s experiences of war directly affect their opinions of it; if games are looking to profit by exploiting their close approximations to actual armed conflict, surely they shouldn’t be able to run and hide from its realities.

Arma 3 Screen 001In support of its motion, the Red Cross offers up a 27 page article entitled, “Beyond the Call of Duty: Why shouldn’t video game players face the same dilemmas as real soldiers?” and it’s here things become more debatable. Despite making a number of wholly valid points, in its determination to act as the organisation’s jus ad bellum, this ‘exploratory’ report more closely resembles the charity’s own dodgy Downing Street dossier. It’s a document held together by inferences, conjecture and misappropriated statistics and it unwittingly starts blowing holes in the ICRC’s case like an M256 smoothbore.

For a start, what actually constitutes a real war simulation? Many modern first-person shooters operate in a murky semi-fictional no man’s land. They’re patchworks of realistically grounded elements and action movie flights of fancy. So should FPS’s like these be included in their definition? At present the MOD struggles to get British soldiers the right kind of body armour, so I doubt they could stretch to regenerating health. And where exactly is the UN resolution banning the use of infinitely respawning enemies?

Call of Duty: Ghosts opens with a Moonraker-esque space sequence, so does this fantastical prelude provide the entire game with an amnesty from the Red Cross’s criteria, or should they be applied on a mission-by-mission, or even checkpoint-by-checkpoint, basis? I understand the ICRC is focusing on things that are within its spheres of influence and interest, but shouldn’t the rules of morality be constant and independent of the arbitrary virtual stage dressing?

There’s also the problem of how games should police your actions? For example: you just carried out a drone strike on a target your superiors assured you was a terrorist compound, yet uncorroborated cell phone footage on Al Jazeera appears to show civilian bodies being removed from the rubble. Let’s go over to our XP adjudicator algorithm for a decision on that one.

And, of course, there’s always the ongoing debate over the importance of interactivity. Is tapping a button to trigger a fifteen second in-game torture scene better or worse than sitting in front of your PC for hours clicking your mouse to passively watch videos of actual acts of torture you found on the web?

These are just a selection of the uncertainties Beyond the Call of Duty unintentionally raises; they’re all just skirmishes in the broader fighting over video game censorship that’s set to increase alongside realism. It’s not hard to imagine road safety charities taking increasing issue with your impromptu games of pedestrian ten-pin bowling in the next Grand Theft Auto. And apparently Joanna Lumley and an ITV film crew are already en route to Far Cry 3’s Rook Islands to document your senseless slaughter of their indigenous wildlife.

As graphics engines become more powerful, AI more adroit and with devices like the Oculus Rift, there’s a real danger games could be inhibited by even the nebulous threat of direct action. Why would a publisher risk a PETA injunction preventing the release of its unflinchingly realistic new title because it allegedly includes cruelty to dogs, when it could just stand the dogs up on their hind legs, arm them with AK-47s and a couple of lines of Arnold Schwarzenegger dialogue and create the new killer horde mode of the moment?

Communication and understanding from both sides is essential, and the way in which the ICRC is currently working with some developers like Bohemia Interactive definitely seems the way forward. That said, it’s unlikely everyone is willing to be so conciliatory, and it may well turn out that, in reality, there are some wars that just aren’t worth fighting.

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