Why Not Apply the Geneva Conventions to Video Games?

11:30:00 AM

This post is in reaction the wonderful questions raised by Zachary Sniderman's article on Mashable.com "Should the Geneva Conventions Be Applied to Video Games?" posted Dec. 02, 2011. Original header and attribution included below.

Should the Geneva Conventions Be Applied to Video Games?Zachary Sniderman by 

Once one gets beyond the heart of the matter - that games are precisely that because they exist outside of the “real world” and in a consecrated space1, and once one realizes the faulty logic behind suggesting that war games such as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 abide by the Geneva Conventions, then the suggestion, nonetheless, brings to mind some untapped possibilities for the design and purpose of war games as a genre.

Nowadays, gaming has become a recognized venue for instruction or concrete work in the sphere of social good or in humanitarian issues. Sniderman notes in his article that, “After beating a game, no player wants to then sit through a mock war trial for the civilian they accidentally shot in the first mission.

But is that really true? Certainly in the current context of how these games are designed, it would certainly fall out of the ken of what these games attempt to simulate - the part of warfare that deals with tactics and teamwork which is, essentially, the thrust of most first-person shooter games. But, what if these games had to abide by the Geneva Conventions?

At first glance a whole bevy of character classes or sub-games could be created for just that very purpose. Consider a sub-game modeled after a Farmville/Sims-style game that allows players to administrate the prisoner camps or that new ranks of player-characters populate the game world such as "Judge" "Ambassador" or "Prime Minister" and which are only granted to players who have advanced significantly in game missions and whose overall kill stats more closely reflects the rules of engagement stipulated by The Geneva Conventions.

That is, for the privilege of and for the game network clout of presiding over the “mock” war crimes trials conducted on fellow players by other players, one could imagine yet another instance of “motivational design.” Not only do these roles grant a player a certain amount of authority and prestige within the gaming network - a core reason people play games in the first place and which underwrites things such as leader boards - but also the so-called courtroom becomes the crowd-sourced forum for fair-play, best practices and community self-regulation wherein senior members of the gaming network act as the standard for the rest of the gamers as they debate how to adjudicated the “war crime.”

There could also be a “peacekeeper” or “Military Police” character class that not only must be unlocked through specific actions by the player, but also this creates opportunities for additional, high-value missions such as a Saving Private Ryan-style mission for bringing a suspected combatant back to the so-called halls of justice.

First-person shooters are generally testosterone-filled, jockish exercises in muscle, fraternal brotherhood and technical skill. What about a first person shooter that also includes the brainy training in a social good or achieves a richer simulation of other aspects of warfare such as diplomacy and rules of engagement?

Granted, this what if scenario probably involves game design and coding beyond the capacity of the game systems that run them at this time. It would be no small feat to be able to realize such an idea.

However, the addition of game systems that process the ethical standards of the Geneva Conventions not with built-in coding, prohibitive algorithms and game design, but instead by the creation of sub-games, earned character classes and in-game sysop privileges and that these systems that process ethical issues are administrated and enacted by the gamers themselves, then suddenly games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 achieves some of the didactic and community building functions2 that satisfy more completely why human beings are wont to play games in the first place.

1 Huizinga, J. (1955). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (p. 3).Boston: The Beacon Press.
2Bowman, S. L. (2010). The Function of Role-Playing Games: How Participants Create Community, Solve Problems and Explore Identity. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

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