I have about five seconds to decide if the car coming towards me is a civilian or an enemy combatant. It's approaching quickly. The driver nearly runs over one of my fellow soldiers (they're not that bright). I lift my rifle, but the rules of engagement are clear. "Remember to check your targets!" the instructor told me when this virtual reality simulation began. "Not all situations are what they seem. Your ROE is to hold fire until fired upon." So, I wait. The car moves past my squad and continues on its way. Not a threat. Just a shitty driver.
I continue the training exercise. A man is walking around with a rifle. He raises it. I lift my own weapon. "Are you sure?" the instructor asks. "That's a civilian." It's not until the man fires that I fire back, killing him with one well-placed shot. "By participating in combat directly, this civilian's protective status has been revoked," the instructor explains.
Many video games try to portray war realistically, but few deal with the humanitarian aspect of armed conflict. The latest downloadable content for Bohemia Interactive's tactical military shooter, Arma 3, embraces it.
Laws of War places players in the role of Nathan MacDade, an explosives specialist working for a fictional nonprofit called the International Development & Aid Project (IDAP). As MacDade clears unexploded ordinance in a war-torn town called Oreokastro, he reminisces with a reporter over Skype. These memories let players experience the conflict from multiple perspectives, offering a more nuanced look at the complexity of war. Meanwhile, two "showcases" like the one I describe above teach players basic combat rules put forth by the Geneva Conventions – fight only combatants, only attack military targets, spare civilian persons and property, and limit destruction.
IDAP is modelled after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), who collaborated with Bohemia Interactive on the project. It's an independent, neutral non-profit organization that promotes international humanitarian law (IHL) and provides assistance to victims of armed conflict. In 2011, it turned its attention to video games.
"it's a very, very difficult job to be a soldier"
Christian Rouffaer is the head of the ICRC's Virtual Reality Unit, which uses motion capture equipment, game engines, and other technologies to create simulations and educational videos. He was asked to study popular military shooters like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Medal of Honor to see if the Geneva and Hague Conventions should apply to them. As a former army officer, he hates the way professional soldiers are currently portrayed in most video games. He especially dislikes it when players or non-playable characters torture enemies for information, something that's strictly prohibited by the Geneva Conventions.
"The impression is there are no rules and you just shoot stuff," he said. "When in fact, it's a very, very difficult job to be a soldier. Especially nowadays when most conflicts are urban conflicts, where you have to watch your target and there's a lot of tension and you could be punished very harshly for not respecting certain parts of the law like [the Principle of Precautions]."
Rouffaer presented his findings at a conference to members of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. It didn't go over well.
While the study was well-received by members of the ICRC, after the news broke on Kotaku, some more mainstream journalists wrote headlines saying the organization wanted to prosecute 600 million gamers for alleged digital war crimes. This wasn't true, of course, and the ICRC was forced to clarify that, no, gamers aren't war criminals. But, the incident proved people were paying attention. Video games could be a powerful tool for conveying a positive message, the ICRC realized. So, it reached out. "Basically, we wrote an official letter to all video game editors worldwide who were producing war games, combat games, and first-person shooters," Rouffaer said. "Not medieval or fantasy, but realistic stuff."
While companies like Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, and Activision Blizzard weren't interested in working with the ICRC (all three declined to comment on this story), Bohemia Interactive responded. The Arma series already contained some elements of IHL, like a Renegade system that punishes players for killing civilians. It was a good starting point for further discussion. Bohemia invited Rouffaer and a colleague to spend two days at its studio in Prague in 2013. "We met some of the team," Rouffaer said. "It was not training. It was more about explaining what we do, giving them an overview of the laws of armed conflict."
"It was really productive," said Arma 3 Creative Director Jay Crowe. "Obviously, we're no experts ourselves, and IHL is a complex topic. Just as we work with consultants to validate our military authenticity, we were able to get feedback on our representation of humanitarian aid work, and guidance on references to things like the Geneva Conventions. The ICRC have always stressed that they don't want to limit player freedom or add artificial restrictions. We've really appreciated this pragmatic approach, and it clicks with the tone of voice we've tried to strike with this DLC."
"Personally speaking, this development has been one of the most rewarding and interesting projects I've worked on," he added. "The experience has certainly left us inspired to do even more with IHL in our future projects."
While the ICRC doesn't want to turn military games into boring morality trainers, it hopes game developers in the future will find more nuanced ways to portray what real soldiers do on the battlefield without spoiling the fun. And it's willing to work with them to achieve that goal. "The door is open," Rouffaer said. "It's always been open for the last five, six years."
But, for now, the organization will continue its partnership with Bohemia Interactive. Bohemia is donating half the net revenue from direct sales of Laws of War in 2017 (bundles excluded) to the ICRC. It will announce the total amount of money raised on its website next year. Meanwhile, the ICRC is using Arma 3 in its outreach. Rouffaer said the game is being used to teach IHL in more than 60 countries around the world.
"I don't think there are so many people working in the video game industry who could say, 'My work, what I do every day and the skills I have ... is also serving another purpose. It's also used to save lives.'"