Playing the game of War

StrangeloveOne of my ‘guilty secret’ films is the 1982 John Badham movie ‘War Games’, in which a teenager inadvertently starts the countdown to World War 3 by hacking in to a military computer system. He thinks he’s playing war games, but the computer thinks that it’s the real thing and starts counting down to a real missile launch. At the end of the film, the youth and the computer’s inventor manage to convince the machine to stop it’s attempts to launch the missiles by telling it to try out various game scenarios in which the result is always the same – mutual destruction. The computer, smarter than most politicians, remarks that nuclear war is an interesting game; the only way to win is not to play.

Shame General Jack D Ripper didn’t get the message….(left)

I was reminded of this film the other morning when I read on the BBC’s web site that a couple of Swiss human rights groups have published a paper in which they protest that it’s possible to commit war crimes in many modern computer games. Now, the fact that this is deemed newsworthy in a world in which war crimes of varying magnitudes are committed every day of the year is quite depressing of itself; perhaps these chaps need to look up from playing ‘Call of Duty’ and see what’s happening and what has happened in the last 15 years in the world – not just in Iraq and Afghanistan but closer to ome in Sarajevo and Kossovo. Seriously, the fact that games are discussed in this context brings little credit to academia and belittles the true war crimes that go on. Does this mean we should re-visit films like ‘Platoon’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket’? Should we ban ‘Star Wars’ with it’s depiction of whole planets being zapped out of existence? Do we purge episodes of Star Trek and Stargate from our collective media experience because of their story lines? 

There is little evidence to suggest that playing these military oriented games desensitizes young men; many Western soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan will have played games like these and are still traumatised by what they see. War crimes have been a feature of warfare from days immemorial; we can go back to places like Lidic and Malmedy in World War 2, the use of gas warfare in Iraq in the 1920s to subdue local guerillas, etc.

The academics comment that the games ‘permit’ war crimes to be carried out in the game scenarios; I wonder if they’re suggesting that the games should somehow prevent this. Some games do have game play that ‘punishes’ such activities in terms of the chance of ‘winning’ n the game, but are the academics suggesting that the games actually forbid activities that are war crimes in the real world? I hope not….and here’s why.

The gamers have free will within the context of what the game allows them to do. They will almost certainly behave in a way that they wouldn’t behave in real life, and I do think that most people playing ‘Call of Duty’ will realise that there is a difference between Xbox mediate pixel slaughter and real world combat. If the activists are suggesting that the ability to commit a war crime in game is more likely to encourage people to do the same thing outside of the game, then there are two options; some sort of modification to the game play that punishes such activities in the game by a modification of the game scenario, or some sort of total block that restricts the course of action of a player in these scenarios. Now, if the academics believe that gamers might suffer from blurred reality when they commit a game based war crime, logically they must also believe that that other game events also might affect their view of reality.

So….where the game scenario is loaded against war crimes, a player may take the decision that they can do it anyway and live with the game consequences. There is no moral judgement here by the player; they’re operating purely within the game mechanics and dealing with the consequences of their activities in a game theory scenario rather than the more complex world of free will and morality. By the academic logic, the gamer would behave in a similar way in real life, ignoring the morality of the decision in favour of some vague ‘live with the consequences’.

The second scenario is even worse – by the logic of the academics it would appear that a gamer attempting a real world war crime will be somehow prevented from doing so by a kind of ‘deus ex machina’. That hand of God? Friendly aliens? Just in time intervention from a superior officer? Who knows….

Whether folks like it or not, a game is a game is a game. Whilst I find some game scenarios morally repugnant, if you accept that the lack of controls in war games to stop people doing certain acts may encourage them to do those acts in real life, you also have to accept that the ability to do any action in a game will encourage that act in real life. The result, therefore, should be to ban everything with the exception of ping-pong. If you don’t accept this, then you need to leave well alone and accept that freedom of will in the game world reflects freedom of will in the real world, and that what truly matters is the character and moral compass of people.

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