DIANA RaffaellaThe ICRC has been actively reaching out to video game developers to support its efforts to promote respect of international humanitarian law (IHL). As part of this strategy, ICRC signed a partnership with Bohemia interactive in 2012. Below, Raffaella Diana, Head of the Prevention Cell, shares her perspective on what motivates such partnerships, as well as the opportunities and challenges they present.

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1- Isn’t there a contradiction in trying to promote IHL via a medium that is by definition virtual and in which “bad behavior” has no real consequences?

The power of videogames as vectors of communication should not be underestimated. In a virtual scenario, bad-behavior is virtual and so are its consequences. What is real though is the learning potential of the gaming experience. This question was addressed years ago by researchers developing military training tools. Today, armed forces all over the world use computer simulations for training, partly because it’s cheaper, but also because it is very efficient compared to more traditional combat drills. Some of the most popular military simulations used today were simple video games a few years ago (Steel beast, VBS3). This says a lot about the real consequences of virtual scenarios.

2- One could imagine that the videogame industry would be reluctant to introduce rules to limit “bad behavior” in their scenarios. Has this been a challenge when reaching out to game developers?

Most videogame companies do have some kind of mechanisms in place in their games to limit “bad behavior”. I’d say that the very idea of introducing limits isn’t per se the challenge in our dialogue with the industry. The challenge is more about “how” to integrate those limits in a videogame, without taking away the “fun” but still keeping the scenarios realistic. In what we have seen so far it’s often limited to very flagrant crimes like the killing of civilians. Some game developers opted for a system that stops the game and sends the player back to the beginning of the level, the famous “you killed a civilian, game over”. This is what happens in Call of Duty, for instance. It’s very basic but it’s better than nothing.

Another option to avoid the killing of civilians in a war-game has been to simply remove civilians from the scenario! But here, the risk is to fail the promise of realism that many of these videogames vaunt. In Battlefield 3 for instance, the absence of civilians is strikingly awkward, especially in the face of the realism of the graphics reproducing Iraqi and Afghan war environments with… no civilians in sight!

A perhaps more interesting case to look at is Bohemia Interactive (BI). BI introduced a system that turns your allies into enemies if you start shooting civilians. This forces the player to face the consequences of his/her action. ICRC would always favor systems that make players think about the consequences of their actions instead of just artificially banning some types of options from games.

Another challenge we face when reaching out to game developers is the perception of the ICRC as yet another NGO aiming to ban violence from video games. We have sometimes struggled to establish first contact with the videogame industry and make our approach understood. But Bohemia Interactive or the Entertainment Software Association have shown great openness to discuss with us how their games can make a difference and promote universal humanitarian principles. We now have a consolidated partnership with BI, so we are confident that we are going in the right direction.

3- Can you give us examples of how ICRC’s partnership with Bohemia Interactive has supported ICRC’s promotion of international humanitarian law and ICRC operations more broadly?

Armed conflicts are more and more complex as well as the legal framework that regulates them. But conflicts are not fought by lawyers and we need the rules to be understood by combatants. The ICRC was looking for a new audio-visual tool to complement its very technical legal and academic publications. Case studies and educational material produced with the game ARMA 3 from Bohemia Interactive are perfect when interacting with non IHL specialists, members of the armed forces and non-state armed groups. ICRC case studies created with the video game ARMA 3 from Bohemia Interactive were successfully used in countries like Myanmar, Philippines, Israel, China, Malaysia, Syria and Iraq and also for internal ICRC training. Audio-visual tools created with ARMA 3 allow ICRC to discuss real life issues, like the use of explosive weapons in urban areas, without entering into the complex political considerations. It helps ICRC to maintain the neutrality of its dialogue with the armed forces and non-state actors. In addition, everybody prefers to watch a video, than to read a 3 pages long written case study.

4- ICRC is also in the process of reaching out to other game developers. Beyond the examples highlighted above, are there other avenues for collaboration that you are exploring with video game companies?

We are indeed reaching out to other game developers and have recently kick-started an informal dialogue with Ubisoft on how to use the “fun” as a vector to pass messages and how to increase the realism of war games by offering the players the same dilemmas of real soldiers. We’ll see where we go from here…

While exploring new avenues, in March the ICRC participated to an event at the 2015 Game Developer Conference in San Francisco as part of a “Gaming the Laws of War” panel, alongside Daniel Greenberg of Media Rez LLC, Professor Seth Hudson from George Mason University, and Bohemia Interactive’s Joris van’t Land. It’s important for ICRC to be present in such events and to bring its perspective into the discussions. The challenge is now to turn innovative concepts into new gameplay mechanisms that would be accepted by gamers. An IHL-based video game that would be purchased by a handful of gamers is much less interesting for ICRC than a game like ARMA 3 that is very popular and includes bits and pieces of IHL hidden in everywhere. We want video games developers to sell games and not IHL training lessons!

5- Blizzard has recently raised funds for the American Red Cross by creating a virtual pet that could be purchased by players of World of Warcraft. As the Red Cross movement continues to reach out to game developers should we be expecting a growing presence of the ICRC on gaming platforms and virtual reality sites?

The gaming community is very generous when properly informed about the reason their financial contributions is needed. The peer to peer approach is key as gamers do have their own cultural references, traditions and language. The virtual pet was a good idea as most gamers want to differentiate themselves from the others. The Bohemia Interactive “Make ARMA not War” contest and the ICRC sponsored “Health Care in Danger” special prize is also a very successful example how ICRC can interact with the gaming community and what can be done with the private sector to raise awareness about some critical issues amongst the community of gamers.

6- In addition, to the ongoing work with game developers do you see other innovations or partnerships with the corporate sector that could support ICRC’s effort to promote IHL or better reach out to weapon bearers?

In recent years, many new advanced technologies were developed around the video games industry. Virtual reality goggles are more and more popular and could truly immerge ICRC staff members into new training programs on safer access or mine awareness. Powerful gaming laptops could help run real-time workshops on disaster relief operations or IHL. Motion capture technology developed for game consoles could also be very useful for the rehabilitation of war wounded and amputees.  The fact is there are a lot of videogame related technologies that would help save lives; we just need to continue to engage with the videogame companies to unleash this potential.