Human rights groups: No in-game war crimes

Report from two Swiss human rights organizations says too many video games let gamers engage in activities that would be illegal in real life. And they want it to stop.

Don Reisinger
Don Reisinger
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
3 min read

Here's one that will undoubtedly send some gamers into a craze. A study from two Swiss human rights organizations, Trial and Pro Juventute, has found that some video games depict war and battle actions that in real life would violate international human rights laws.

The study attempted to determine if the acts gamers engage in while they play violent titles would "lead to violations of rules of international law, in particular International Humanitarian Law (IHL), basic norms of International Human Rights Law (IHRL), or International Criminal Law (ICL)."

To find out, Trial and Pro Juventute picked up 20 games, including Call of Duty 4, Metal Gear Solid 4, Far Cry 2, and others. It had "young gamers" play the games as three attorneys watched to find actions in games that in real life would violate rules and regulations that govern armed conflict.

The organizations said the study is not intended to "prohibit the games, to make them less violent or to turn them into IHL or IHRL training tools." Instead, the groups want to work with developers to ensure that in the future, their games observe real-life human-rights laws.

After evaluating the 20 games, the group found that in many cases, "shooter" games failed to take into consideration international humanitarian law.

"The practically complete absence of rules or sanctions is nevertheless astonishing: civilians or protected objects such as churches or mosques can be attacked with impunity, in scenes portraying interrogations it is possible to torture, degrade or treat the prisoner inhumanely without being sanctioned for it and extrajudicial executions are simulated," the groups wrote in a statement. "At least a few games punish the killing of civilians or reward strategies that aim to prevent excessive damage."

Individual game evaluations were just as biting. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare had one of the more lengthy violation sections. According to the group, the game violates several human-rights laws by allowing games 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, open areas of the town, squares featuring statues, etc. Under IHL, the fact that combatants/fighters are present in a town does not make the entire town a military objective."

The group also disliked the beating of the game's villain, Al-Asad. It asserted that the "beating of Al-Asad amounts to torture or at least inhuman treatment, which are prohibited in any context, under any circumstances, whether in peace time or during armed conflict situations. Killing him amounts to an extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary execution as it falls outside the context of any legal framework."

Similar evaluations were given on the other games the groups evaluated.

In the end, Trial and Pro Juventute delivered recommendations. The groups says it wants developers to make it clear to gamers that in any circumstance, human-rights violations cannot be allowed, even in a game setting. It also requested that, going forward, developers adhere to international human rights laws when they depict war or battle in a game.

"It is regrettable that game producers hardly ever use this possibility to creatively incorporate the rules of international law or even representatives of such rules as specific elements in the course of the game," the groups wrote in a statement. "Pro Juventute and Trial call upon the producers of computer and video games to use their strong creativity and innovation for this purpose. It would mean a wasted opportunity if the virtual space transmitted the illusion of impunity for unlimited violence in armed conflicts."

The group also said that it chose video games, rather than film, because of the former's "interactive" nature.

Now it's your turn. Should games depict violence that would be illegal in real life? Do human rights laws extend to video games? Let us know in the comments below.