Longtime readers of this on-again, off-again blog will know that video games and ethics are an interest of mine. By way of disclosure, I confess that I own a PlayStation, am a terrible FPS (first person shooter) player as I oak reflexes and spatial reasoning, but occasionally like games where I can shoot zombies and hostile space aliens.
Yesterday the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has called on the video game industry not to create content that allows players to choose actions which would, in real life, violate internationally agrees laws of armed conflict. As Michael Peck notes for Foreign Policy, "The ICRC is suggesting that as in real life, these games should include virtual consequences for people's actions and decisions. Gamers should be rewarded for respecting the law of armed conflict and there should be virtual penalties for serious violations of the law of armed conflict, in other words war crimes." The proposal would deny the players the ability to use torture or abuse non-combatants, as some games permit.
It's an interesting proposal, and heartening to see at least one game studio cooperating with the ICRC, but as Peck notes, it's unlikely that other game companies will fall in line. The Red Cross' focus on military-themed games such as the Call of Duty series may lead one to wonder whether crime-themed games such as the urban-mayhem Grand Theft Auto, are just as morally suspect?
Peck concludes his article on a sceptical note, arguing that it is not the province of video games to teach ethics. One can imagine a game that is specifically designed to teach ethics, such as simulation that challenges players to make hard choices while, say, running an NGO in a disaster zone, but that is not the sort of game Peck describes. Popular video games, he notes, are about winning, not ethics. "When Grand Theft Auto V penalizes players who behave violently with a crackdown by the cops, does it lead to more ethical behaviour, or just inspire players to find more clever ways of killing and robbing?"
I wish the ICRC luck with their project, and for those readers who have children who play these games, I think that would be a great dinner table conversation topic. For educators, the ICRC website's resources on this issue are terrific. I would also suggest that parents learn the rating system for games, and be vigilant about what gets played in the family home. For my part, I'll keep the mayhem focused on hostile aliens who want to take over the earth.