In its efforts to promote human rights in violent conflicts across the globe, the International Committee of the Red Cross has a reached out to an unexpected partner: the video game industry. The Geneva-based ICRC recently announced a campaign urging video games that simulate modern war zones to better reflect the consequences of violating international laws.
"The International Committee of the Red Cross has the mandate under the Geneva Conventions to make people aware of the Geneva Conventions, and to promote respect of the Geneva Conventions," ICRC spokesperson Bernard Barrett says, referring to the humanitarian protocols during wartime established by a series of international treaties.
"It would be interesting and worthwhile for players who want to participate in scenarios resembling real-life battlefields that these rules be incorporated, because these are the scenarios real life soldiers have to deal with," he says.
The ICRC would like video game developers to create games that would reflect the consequences of war crimes, be they rewards for adhering to the Geneva Conventions or punishments for breaking them. "We don't want pop-ups giving law courses," Barrett says. Rather, the ICRC would like video games developers to creatively explore the wide-ranging ramifications of decisions made in war.
"If you start shooting at civilians randomly, you may get shot at from someone on your own side," Barrett says as an example. Another possible consequence: The loss of virtual resources or support.
The video game industry has come under fire recently as lawmakers and pundits have blamed violent video games for recent mass shootings. The research connecting video games to violent behavior is murky at best, and Barrett says the ICRC does not wish to take a stance on violence in video games.
"We don't want to censor games. We don't want to sterilize games, but there should be consequences in these games as there are in real life," Barrett says. The ICRC sees video games, like movies and other cultural products, as an opportunity to educate the public.
"It is one of the smarter advocacy campaigns in the sense that they're not making too many alarmists claims about video games," says Stetson University psychology professor Chris Ferguson, who has conducted numerous studies on video games and behavior. "From their perspective, they're bringing up issues that are reasonable to talk about," Ferguson says.
The ICRC is primarily interested in games set in contemporary battlefields, not fantasy- or science fiction-themed games. It's focused on video games worldwide, not just the American market, and Barrett says it has already seen some success in war-torn places like Syria and Chechnya.
"A lot of people using games are young men and women," Barrett says. Young people are usually the prime recruits for state-sanctioned military service and renegade groups alike.
"We would like to see them made more aware of what are the rules, that they must be respected, and if they are not respected, there are consequences," Barrett says.
Video game makers could also benefit from partnership with the Red Cross, Ferguson says.. "I would like to think that they're interested in connecting with a group like the Red Cross to enhance their reputation," Ferguson says, speaking to the industry's PR and political battles over video game violence. "If a group like the Red Cross does reach a hand out to them, they ought to take it."
But whether the industry participates in the awareness campaign will ultimately come down to how well such modified games do in stores.
"Quite honestly, sales are going to be a big issue," Ferguson says. "It would have to be attached to a really playable platform and have an intriguing storyline. But I think it could be done and be really interesting."