All Aboard The Censorship (part one)

Censorship in games is hardly a new issue, and it can vary wildly from country to country. However, two Swiss human rights organisations – Pro Juventute and TRIAL – recently produced a study entitled Playing By The Rules: Applying International Humanitarian Law to Video and Computer Games. The introduction claims that “The goal is not to prohibit the games, to make them less violent or to turn them into IHL [International Humanitarian Law] or IHRL [International Human Rights Law] training tools”, and that “We have chosen video and computer games as the object of our analysis because, unlike literature, films and television, where the viewer has a passive role, in shooter games, the player has an active role in performing the actions”. I shall quite easily prove that neither of these statements stands up to scrutiny.

I’d like to say before anything else, that this is not going to be a blind, venomous attack on the study – or, indeed, the organisations who produced it. In fact, I’d like to start off by quoting some positive conclusions drawn by the study. Part of the conclusion reads: “In general, we believe and we have seen, in the course of playing different games, that punishing illegal conduct in video and computer games can be done and is, in fact, already done in some of the most popular games”. Unfortunately, that handful of words is just about the only sensible sentence directly referring to games in the whole 46 – page study. I’m not one of those loons who see human rights as a bad thing – I’m a member of Amnesty International, and intend to be so till my dying day – but trying to apply them to algorithms, pixels, wireframes and renders is preposterous.

The idea of human rights applying to on – screen fictional characters who are nothing more than data on a disc (or hard drive) is so ludicrous, I don’t feel the need to explain any further. I must be fair, however; the study’s main concern (ostensibly, at any rate) was that players of certain games are able to virtually commit war crimes, or other breaches of human rights. And yes, games were actually played. TRIAL and Pro Juventute paid gamers to play through a selection of games, while lawyers watched and noted any on – screen human rights and/or Geneva Convention abuses. They took the time to actually pile hours into researching games themselves – you have to give them credit for that. So first of all, let’s take a look at some of the games tested for the study, and the human rights violations allegedly contained therein.

Army of Two was one of the games included in the study. Amusingly, the only thing that seemed to trouble them about this game was the fact that the Two are mercenaries, and therefore not actually ‘allowed’ to participate in hostilities. This is the kind of thing that stops me from taking the study seriously: “As mentioned above, mercenaries are considered to be civilians and as such, they have no right to participate in the hostilities. However, in the game, the members of “Army of Two” are participating in hostilities, so they lose protection awarded to civilians under IHL and may be tried for their mere participation in hostilities by the authorities of the states involved”. Though how, exactly, is controlling a virtual mercenary in any danger of violating anybody’s human rights? At the worst, you’re pretending to do a rather stupid thing that could get you killed or arrested.

Battlefield: Bad Company is told off for allowing the player to blow walls in houses and take gold from buildings (ie ‘pillaging’).

The Call of Duty games, predictably, come in for some flak. Modern Warfare (the first one) gets lots of attention, primarily it seems for allowing the player to attack buildings and statues without punishment, with the exception of the church when you’re gunning with thermal vision.

The notoriously anti – war Metal Gear games, which encourage and reward the avoidance of combat, would be safe from this study – right? Nope. Metal Gear Solid 4 (or, as the study calls it, ‘Metal Gear Soldier 4’) was criticised too. One of the two criticisms however, relied on – wait for it – a walkthrough they found, which they took to mean that the player is required to kill unarmed or wounded enemies. Walkthroughs found on the internet of course are privately written by fans of the games, and are not written by, or in any way endorsed by, the developers.

Several other games are included, and you can read the study, in full, for yourself via the link at the bottom of the page. Many games do require or allow the player to breach human rights or ignore the Geneva Convention. As well as the examples I’ve mentioned, the study points out that some of the games allow the player to kill civilians, torture captives, kill unarmed or surrendering enemies, and more. But that still begs the question: Why have this study at all? None of these games contain any actual humans. As I quoted at the beginning, the study claims that the interactive rather than passive nature of games was a concern, and yet they have no intention of changing games so that they feature less violence and all teach players about human rights laws. Now, however: the truth. Read the following paragraph, taken from the section detailing the ‘violations’ found in Rainbow Six Vegas:

“Another scene portrays soldiers executing civilians. The characters are far away, thus it is difficult to see the action very clearly. Seemingly however, the civilians are tied up. The soldiers shoot them in the back. As explained above, attacking civilians is a violation of IHL and both IHL and IHRL prohibit summary executions. If these acts are performed by law enforcement officials, outside the context of an armed conflict, they would thus constitute a violation of the right to life. Even though it is seemingly not the player who is committing the violation, it would be recommendable to avoid putting these kinds of scenes in video games as they could mislead players in terms of what is allowed to be done.” Italicising mine. I’d just like to say that if you’re old enough to read and understand this article, and you still don’t understand that murder and torture are wrong, you never will.

So as can be seen, the study is calling for censorship and for all games featuring armed conflict to feature nothing but content that complies 100% with IHL and IHRL – essentially, the exact ‘training tools’ the introduction promised they were not seeking. Several similar paragraphs can be found littering the study. Furthermore, the content in question is viewed passively.

If the issue of interactivity were the study’s true concern, then it would have been much better served to concentrate on movies, theatre and TV. Think about it. Actors and actresses act out murder and torture on other human beings every single day, across the world. And of course, every single scene must be rehearsed and filmed again, and again, and again, and again. You don’t get any more ‘interactive’ than that without carrying out the human rights violations for real. In addition to this, it is likely that the same people will act out similar violations in many different projects. So am I suggesting that no TV programmes, plays or films are made that feature IHL and IHRL – violating content? Of course not. I’m merely pointing out that a much stronger case could be applied to passive mediums, and yet it is still patently absurd.

Playing By The Rules

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you'll find something he's written in there. Luke doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.


  1. you know i think that people who complain about games being violent are the lazy ass parents who dont want to take care of there kids so they put them in front of a tv with whatever media will keep them busy and go off and do there own thing not caring about there kids so to people who say video games are bad its more like parents are dumbasses

  2. An_Anonymoose /

    I suggest you send this analysis to the organisations that conducted the study and see what they make of it… Just for kicks…

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