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You’re a War Criminal

Steve Watts | 20 Dec 2011 12:00
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Where does one draw an ethical boundary when pretending to commit moral atrocities? That was the question recently raised by a committee meeting during the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. The internet's penchant for hyperbole stirred fears that the organization would push for restrictions on videogame content, and the Red Cross was quickly forced to clarify that it had no intent of pursuing legal action. But lost in the paranoia was the organization's central point: Videogames often do allow or even force a player to take part in virtualized war crimes, without educating players on which actions cross the legal line. The intent was to raise awareness, not lock up gamers -- and to that end, the Red Cross was absolutely right to ask the question.

If an officer or soldier of a signatory country breaks these rules, that person has committed a war crime.

You might have heard the term "war crime" thrown around a lot recently -- it's been especially popular among partisan politicians and pundits criticizing the controversy du jour. The Red Cross, though, was specifically referring to violations of international treaties like the various Geneva Conventions and Hague Peace Conferences. These and various other treaties make up International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL). If an officer or soldier of a signatory country breaks these rules, that person has committed a war crime.

By the rule of IHL, war crimes include the obvious like genocide or taking slaves, but also less intuitive ones. As a signatory country of the third Geneva Convention, for example, the United States can't keep POWs in prison cells, except for their own protection. Instead, prisoners have to be interred within boundaries. Thanks to the Hague conferences, we also can't damage or export cultural property like artwork or libraries. The full list of IHL laws is detailed and vast, and treats war opposition more humanely than you might expect from what you see in pop culture.

A 2009 study from Swiss humanitarian groups TRIAL and Pro Juventute took a closer look at war crimes in games, but even that extensive study was somewhat problematic for examining war crimes committed by the player. Some examples like Rainbow Six Vegas simply portrayed war crimes perpetrated by villains; the player's goal was to catch or stop the criminals. Others examples like Metal Gear Solid 4 or Far Cry 2 allowed war crimes committed by the player, but the heroes were hired mercenaries and not acting on behalf of a signatory country. The study conceded that certain controversial IHL issues, like how to treat private military contractors, made some of the scenarios difficult to judge.

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