How The Red Cross Virtually Lost The Plot

As long as human beings have been creating fictional worlds, moralists have been denouncing their creations. But the news that the Red Cross might prosecute 600 million video gamers for war crimes was still pretty ground-breaking. A daily bulletin of the organisation’s annual conference two weeks ago recorded an ”overall consensus and motivation” to act ”against violations of international human rights law in video games”.

The conflicts simulated in games like Call of Duty, Battlefield and Metal Gear don’t rigorously comply with the Geneva Conventions. Game developers are understandably more interested in playability than legal realism.

But the bulletin had been written ambiguously. A week later, the Red Cross clarified that ”serious violations of the laws of war can only be committed in real-life situations”. It just wants to ”engage in a dialogue with the video gaming industry”. So we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Log back on to Xbox Live. Reinstall the iPhone games. Plug the Playstation into the TV again. But the very fact that the Red Cross decided to investigate video games is deeply, almost incomprehensibly, absurd. It is about as sensible as objecting to slasher movies because murder is against the law.

This year has been one of the most important years in human rights in decades. Yet the supreme deliberative body of the biggest human rights organisation in the world thought now would be a good time to discuss how international law is portrayed in entirely fictional settings. This suggests that some human rights activists are animated not just by an admirable defence of individual rights around the world, but by an all-encompassing moral crusade. Sure, the Red Cross does a lot of great work, but does it really think fictional violence, in games played mostly by those who will never enter a combat zone, is an urgent problem?

The liberal philosopher Richard Flathman talks about the pervasive tendency in politics towards moralism. Handwringing, showy and excessive moral judgmentalism infects democratic debate around the world. It’s driven by politicians and professional moral activists. They’re extremely confident in the rightness of their cause. They’re deeply earnest. They have a belief in an ideal world – they’re on a quest for purity. And they believe that to achieve the pure goals stipulated by their moral vision, they need to force change on the rest of society.

For those stirred by such moral fervour, even fictional depictions of the world – in video games, movies, novels – are a challenge to their vision and an opportunity for action.

It was this sort of moral activism which gave us the famous film codes in the mid-20th century. These insisted married couples could not be seen in the same bed, and no evil could be depicted as ”attractive” or ”alluring”.

And in our century, the same passion motivates the public health activists trying to ban cigarettes in movies, anti-consumerists denouncing product placement in television shows, and religious groups picketing Harry Potter book launches. Sometimes they want the offending material banned. Other times they just want to ”work with” the transgressing filmmakers and artists. Either way, moralists believe that society should be engineered to make it more moral, more ethical, more clean. And they appear to have infiltrated the otherwise clear-headed and respected Red Cross.

There’s hardly any better example of this moral self-seriousness than the 2009 research report which sparked the Red Cross’ video games discussion. Playing by the Rules, produced by a Geneva-based advocacy group, pedantically scrutinises popular games according to a strict legal criteria.

For example, in 24: The Game, a terrorist is killed after he surrenders. The report concludes that this is a violation of Article 3(1) of the Geneva Conventions, and Article 8(2)(b)(vi) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Then one of the terrorists – sorry, ”alleged” terrorists – takes a hostage. This is a clear breach of the 1979 International Convention against the Taking of Hostages. Of course, there is no cause to believe the game developers approve of terrorists taking hostages. Or that gamers will be convinced hostage-taking is an admirable thing to do.

In one edition of the Call of Duty franchise, set during the Second World War, players can use flamethrowers. Such weapons were used in that conflict, but were technically illegal according to the 1907 Hague Conventions. So, the report meticulously points out that this too is a human rights violation.

Such absurdities are apparently enough to get the world’s peak human rights watchdog in a flurry. Certainly, the Red Cross has a remit to ”promote respect” of the rules of war. But the elimination of war crimes will not be furthered one bit by changing video game content. No person has ever believed that Castle Wolfenstein is a guide to just or unjust behaviour. Yet the Red Cross still solemnly claimed that ”600 million gamers” may be ”virtually violating” international human rights law. If this is not an attempt to stoke a moral panic, then nothing deserves that title.