Longtime readers of this on-again, off-again blog will know that video games and ethics are an interest of mine.  By way of disclosure, I confess that I own a PlayStation, am a terrible FPS (first person shooter) player as I oak reflexes and spatial reasoning, but occasionally like games where I can shoot zombies and hostile space aliens.

Yesterday the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has called on the video game industry not to create content that allows players to choose actions which would, in real life, violate internationally agrees laws of armed conflict.  As Michael Peck notes for Foreign Policy,   “The ICRC is suggesting that as in real life, these games should include virtual consequences for people’s actions and decisions.  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 proposal would deny the players the ability to use torture or abuse non-combatants, as some games permit.

It’s an interesting proposal, and heartening to see at least one game studio cooperating with the ICRC, but as Peck notes, it’s unlikely that other game companies will fall in line. The Red Cross’ focus on military-themed games such as the Call of Duty series may lead one to wonder whether crime-themed games such as the urban-mayhem Grand Theft Auto, are just as morally suspect?

Peck concludes his article on a sceptical note, arguing that it is not the province of video games to teach ethics.  One can imagine a game that is specifically designed to teach ethics, such as simulation that challenges players to make hard choices while, say, running an NGO in a disaster zone, but that is not the sort of game Peck describes.   Popular video games, he notes, are about winning, not ethics.   “When Grand Theft Auto V penalizes players who behave violently with a crackdown by the cops, does it lead to more ethical behaviour, or just inspire players to find more clever ways of killing and robbing?”

I wish the ICRC luck with their project, and for those readers who have children who play these games, I think that would be a great dinner table conversation topic.  For educators, the ICRC website’s resources on this issue are terrific.  I would also suggest that parents learn the rating system for games, and be vigilant about what gets played in the family home.   For my part, I’ll keep the mayhem focused on hostile aliens who want to take over the earth.

0 Responses

  1. As always, an interesting and thought-provoking post. I think this is a good idea.

    If we can't (or rather, the games companies won't) penalise virtual criminal behaviour, then they should at least stop rewarding it. On 'points' mode on a certain popular FPS, finishing off a wounded enemy with a pistol gives you bonus points. I can't help but think of the similarity between the behaviour that game rewards and the case of the Royal Marine convicted of murder in a similar situation. Impossible to draw any link and I'm sure if there WAS a link it was not at all a conscious, deliberate one, but interesting nonetheless.

    Having said that, one could equally argue that this would be the thin end of the wedge. Should ALL behaviour be virtually legal? What about a virtual court to police all of your games, a virtual court with virtual penalties? Sounds absurd, but before stepping off down a road you should think about what's at the end of it.

    Games are fundamentally about escapism, and the grim fact is that a lot of the most 'fun' things are often illegal. There is a strong and direct financial motivation to make these 'fun' games, and fighting against a financial motivation is the hardest thing a legislative assembly can attempt.

    The optimist in me would say that the majority of people can differentiate between real life and games, and that they can even act as a cathartic safety valve, playing out frustrations and anger in a harmless environment.

    The fact is, we will not know for certain how this sort of thing affects the human mind for a long time until medical advances catch up. That could be hundreds of years – and until then, with lives at stake, the pessimist in me would err on the side of caution.

    Thoughts, Mike?

  2. This is a topic about which I feel quite strongly, so forgive me if this isn't particularly articulate – passion rarely makes for clarity.

    I can see the superficial attractions of that particular course of action, however, I would argue that this would be a very poor course of action to follow for a society that values freedom of ideas. There is good art and there is bad art, but I believe that Western Culture would be the poorer , if we begin to conflate the image and the reality – mistaking the fantasy for the act.

    The findings of the case of the convicted Royal Marine are emotionally complex (there but for the grace of God go I), but legally simple. However, when playing a game or writing a book or directing a play, it is vital for the health of the society for the artist to explore those aspects of ourselves that are ugly. I'm not suggesting that they not be bound by considerations of taste – but the market place of ideas will sort out what is acceptable to the public in very short order. A producer of art can choose not to explore a particular option (I don't allow players to kill prisoners in my Little Wars game for example), but I don't think they should be forbidden from exploring.

    I see no problem with a group attempting to persuade a producer not to do something – I am just extremely wary of the state getting involved. It may be acceptable in the 21st West to criminalise certain forms of expression as "hate speech". But the problem is that states have no friends, little loyalty and no honour.

    I may consider men like Richard Dawkins or David Irving to be beneath contempt, but they must be allowed to speak. If ideas are to be free, all ideas must be free – the bad ones as well as the good.

    There is a report, as yet unconfirmed, that eight people were tied to stakes in a stadium in front of over 10,000 people including children in the North Korean city of Wonsan. Their crimes included watching South Korean films, involvement in prostitution, possession of pornography and possession of a bible.

    They were then shot.

    This is an extreme example, but if we do not speak up for the freedom of bad ideas, who will speak for the good?

  3. An interesting analysis of video games has been done by Dave Grossman and Gloria Degaetano in "Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: A Call to Action Against TV, Movie & Video Game Violence" Grossman cites research pointing to some clear links between violence and high-reality video games, and draws a parallel between the conditioning done by FPS type games, and the US military's training of soldiers to mentally condition them to kill.