On Becoming a (Virtual) War Criminal

I am a war criminal. I have played video games.

Two human rights organizations have conducted a study of video games. Do video games that simulate war allow players to commit war crimes? Can players kill civilians? Torture enemy units? Destroy property?

Their conclusion? War video games allow their players to commit war crimes.

The study condemned the games for violating laws by letting players kill civilians, torture captives and wantonly destroy homes and buildings.

In particular, the testers looked for how combatants who surrendered were treated, what happened to citizens caught up in war zones and whether damage to buildings was proportionate.

Some games did punish the killing of civilians and reward strategies that tried to limit the damage the conflict, said the study.

However, it said, many others allowed “protected objects” such as churches and mosques to be attacked; some depicted interrogations that involved torture or degradation and a few permitted summary executions.

Unfortunately, the human rights groups played only first-person shooters. The strategy games — like Civilization, like Age of Empires, like Rise of Nations — weren’t tested.

However, I can say from long experience with these games that I’m a Pol Pot. A Stalin. A Mao. I commit war crimes on a semi-frequent basis, as any of my after-action reports for Age of Empires III will attest.

I have wantonly killed civilians.

I have destroyed churches and mosques with impunity; I once laid siege to a town center in Age of Empires II so I could destroy the enemy’s church and take his relic, it was a battle like a medieval Stalingrad, and I had such a sense of satisfaction when his church fell and my squad of monks rushed in to grab the relic amidst the carnage.

I have refused my opponents’ surrenders, just so I can kill more of his units and destroy more of his infrastructure.

Torture? I can’t say I’ve ever tortured anyone in an Age of Empires game. No point, really.

I have dropped nukes in Civ, though. I have turned my enemies into radioactive glass. And I’ve liked it.

Killing civilians, razing towns to the ground, disproportionate warfare — these are all part-and-parcel of a strategy game. Of winning a strategy game. It doesn’t matter what you’re playing. It can be WarCraft or Command & Conquer.

Have I wished, at times, for other methods to win? Yes. I have.

But I also have to fight the war at hand. I am a cruel general. War is hell. I am a war criminal.


Published by Allyn

A writer, editor, journalist, sometimes coder, occasional historian, and all-around scholar, Allyn Gibson is the writer for Diamond Comic Distributors' monthly PREVIEWS catalog, used by comic book shops and throughout the comics industry, and the editor for its monthly order forms. In his over ten years in the industry, Allyn has interviewed comics creators and pop culture celebrities, covered conventions, analyzed industry revenue trends, and written copy for comics, toys, and other pop culture merchandise. Allyn is also known for his short fiction (including the Star Trek story "Make-Believe,"the Doctor Who short story "The Spindle of Necessity," and the ReDeus story "The Ginger Kid"). Allyn has been blogging regularly with WordPress since 2004.

3 thoughts on “On Becoming a (Virtual) War Criminal

  1. I picked up Civ for XBox recently, and led the Roman Empire to a glorious victory when they colonized Alpha Centauri.

    … shame that every other nation on Earth was jealous of my technology and attacked me. I had to wipe out three civilizations, and the fourth one came close before it surrendered.

  2. I’ve dropped a nuke in civilization before, but I always end up loading my game. I feel guilty about destroying the environment and having people not respond well to my actions. I ALWAYS load my game. But I guess I must secretly get some rush about doing it in the first place or I would never launch one in the first place, right?

    I think that there’s a problem in our game media of progression.

    Allyn and I are around the same age .. we’ve been around since there were atari 2600’s in every home. When one pixel dot shot other pixel dots to wint the game. We both worked in the video game industry and we watched it evolve over 2 decades into the graphical giants that it is today. But we have something that the new generation lacks… the progression.

    We experienced the pixel dots .. we will never forget when the graphics weren’t quite as good as they are today. And because of that .. no matter how realistic a game of today might seem to us .. no matter how much we might emmerse ourselves in the medium .. we know its a video game. We know its not real. Satisfying, yes .. but not real.

    Kids today don’t have that sense of progression. If the Xbox 360 or PS3 (or even PC) is their first gaming platform then games are going to be pretty darn realistic. They will have a much harder time separating the fiction from the reality. A game like Call of Duty Modern Warefare II, which seems like an awesome simulation first person shooter in my hands could be seen as a window to the real world to the kids of today.

    Its not the gaming industry’s responsibility to make sure that M rated titles aren’t played by minors .. that’s a parents job .. and sadly not every parent is like I am .. an avid devotee to the digial media of yesterday, today and tomorrow. Parents are extremely lacking in proper information. Sadly, more parents seem to not care.

    It would be nice if, the next time a Grand Theft Auto game launched, these people making the laws banning video games had to work in a video game store for a day. I would be curious what they would say at the end of the day .. what laws they would be inspired to pass. How are they going to feel after telling parent after parent who comes in to pick up this clearly M rated game with their 10 year old bouncing beside them in anticipation that this is a game seeped in violence where you can pick up hookers, have sex with them to increase your life total and then pull them from the car and beat them over the head with a baseball bat to steal back the money you just paid them .. and then watch as the parent laughs and says, “I don’t care”.

    They don’t care. Parents … they just don’t. And THIS is the problem with games that depict intense realistic situations of violence. The parents don’t care. Stop regulating the industry .. start holding parents accountable. Put a parent in jail when their kid shoots up a school and you find a collection of M rated violence titles in the kid’s room next to their 360. See if there’s a change in buying habits then …

    I might have gone off on a rant …


  3. I’ll be honest, a lot of war games are sold on the point that you’re playing a stereotypical loose-cannon badass. There’s the much-fretted-over mission in Modern Warfare 2 (one which prompts a “Disturbing Content Notice” and allows you to skip the mission with no penalty) where, in order to infiltrate a terrorist organization, you take part in a massacre at an airport. Disturbing? A bit, yes, especially when the wounded are executed. But these are digital people.

    Wanton destruction of property? That can only be Battlefield: Bad Company that they’re talking about there. That game was sold on it’s physics engine, which allowed virtually any building to be destroyed. It was a new take on cover — suddenly, your bring wall wasn’t enough to hide you from tanks. Or maybe it was the latest Red Faction game, where you play as a freedom-fighter trying to bring down the oppressive industrial structure of Mars. Of course you’ll demolish buildings. You get points for crippling industrial sites.

    And indeed, it is the parent’s job to keep unreasonable content out of the hands of minors. For a while, parents didn’t understand the gaming culture, and that was a legitimate concern — but now, gaming is more mainstream, and the same people who conned their folks into buying Grant Theft Auto 3 are on the verge of having kids themselves. Parents are gamers now, they know a lot more about what’s what. The problem has really solved itself. Where was this outrage when Payback came out? Mel Gibson runs around a city, toruting and executing anyone who gets in his way. As a movie, it was celebrated for being gritty and violent. As a game, it would be absolutely outrageous.

    There’s obviously a difference between playing out those actions and just watching them, but videogames are brilliant story-telling devices on their own, and stories in games are more and more in-depth and key to the plotline.

    In Modern Warfare 2, you can spot all of the key structural elements of a good story, and the story is compelling. Spoilers ahead (for those who hate them), but the character who shoots up that airport is killed at the end of the mission by the terrorist he’s trying to get close to. The authorities on the scene discover the body of an American spec-ops agent on the scene of a massacre and launch an all-out invasion of the United States. It’s an amazing story. The next Splinter Cell looks to have a great story, too — CIA agent goes rogue to avenge the death of his daughter? Count me in.

    Oh, I got a little ranty, too… Sorry about that.

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