Rules of the (video) game: IHL on the virtual battlefield.

Author:Brown, Gary
Position:Proceedings of the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: Adapting to a Rapidly Changing World

This panel was convened at 11:00 a.m., Thursday, April 9, by its moderator Gary Brown of the Marine Corps University, who introduced the panelists: Daniel Greenberg of Media Rez (and Chair of the Anti-Censorship and Social Issues Committee of the International Game Developer's Association); Seth Hudson of George Mason University; and Lt. Col. Kurt Sanger of the United States Marine Corps. *

The law of armed conflict (LOAC) is a unique creation. It is a body of law that attempts to regulate conduct between groups of people who are trying to kill each other. Most of it is based on custom that developed over hundreds of years. People fought, figured out what worked, and what did not. Eventually they repeated the process so many times that it became law. LOAC, sometimes called International Humanitarian Law (IHL), is designed to lessen some of the horrors of war.

This panel, composed of experts from the fields of LOAC, education, and the gaming industry, provided an interactive presentation on how integrating LOAC into videogames not only provides LOAC education to a relatively untapped market, but also improves the games by making them more realistic and challenging.

The law of armed conflict is uniquely suited for integration in computer games. It is not like the law that governs law enforcement officers and citizens in peacetime. Under LOAC, people may lawfully kill some people and break some things, and use lethal force (rather than arrest) as a first option. Combatants are permitted to undertake attacks knowing they will cause some level of collateral damage and collateral injury, and to target people based on who they are. Specific principles of LOAC include distinction, proportionality, humanity, and necessity.

Distinction requires attackers to differentiate between civilian and military persons and property, and only target the latter. Proportionality requires that attackers ensure anticipated collateral damage is not excessive compared to the expected military advantage. The principle of humanity prohibits causing unnecessary suffering. Finally, military necessity requires that attacks undertaken make victory more likely.

Some examples of how the principles might be represented in games help illustrate the point. For off-map support (e.g., calling in an airstrike) in a game, decisions on targeting and weaponeering could consider proportionality. Precision weapons normally result in less collateral damage, and bigger weapons might be appropriate only if used to strike military targets away from civilian areas.

Another example, illustrating distinction, might be during a game scenario requiring a military operation to clear an apartment building. A player might choose to kill everyone indiscriminately, or could attempt to carry out the mission without harming civilians. The game might allow both, but could provide that if all approaching civilians are killed, the player might miss out on helpful information one civilian was attempting to deliver. Also, if civilians in the game figure out they are being killed even if they are not aggressive, they could all start fighting back, making the player's progress more difficult.

Gary Brown, a former International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) employee, noted that globally, the ICRC works to prevent real-life violations of LOAC through education focused on teaching the law and how to keep war-fighting within the bounds of the law. With their unique interactive nature, repetitive play, and broad appeal, the ICRC believes video games may shape attitudes and opinions on war. Featuring moral and ethical dilemmas related to wartime conduct can offer a wider range of choices to players, challenge them to play smarter, realistically reflect the dynamics of conflict today, and have a positive impact on the players.

The purpose of the panel was not to conclude "Gaming is a war crime!" or "You are not allowed to show violations of the law in games!" or "You are evil for allowing players in your game to be immoral/unethical/illegal!" Rather, the panel noted that giving players a choice is the best way to illustrate the concepts and it makes for a richer in game experience Lieutenant Colonel Kurt Sanger's comments explained the importance of training for the military and the challenge of reproducing the grim realities of combat to make training more realistic and useful.

The movie The Right Stuff illustrates the manner in which the first U.S. astronauts trained to travel into outer space. The training included activities that conditioned astronauts' bodies and minds for their adventures. By simulating the feelings and challenges of being in space, these activities helped compensate for the impossibility of building a realistic representation of it. The intent was to ensure that the astronauts encountered every task and problem space might present before blasting off.

In the same sense, military commanders are confronted with preparing for war in training environments that are pale imitations of operational realties. Troops can train in the same weather and terrain they will deal with in combat. They can march with heavy loads, skip meals, spend days without sleep, and practice maneuvers. Troops can face faux-...

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