The above might sound bizarre, but last year the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) did actually look into whether the Geneva and Hague conventions could be applied to video games. A statement on their website explained why: “In real life, armed forces are subject to the laws of armed conflict. Video games simulating the experience of armed forces therefore have the potential to raise awareness of the rules that those forces must comply with whenever they engage in armed conflict. The ICRC welcomes the fact that certain video games on war-related themes already take the law of armed conflict into account.”
While it’s heartening to know that the manufacturers of “certain video games” respect the rule of law even in the digital world, contrast this with those real-life governments that appear less then keen to do so. A case in point is the US drone warfare program in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, which has been criticized by a number of prominent legal and human rights experts who argue that they potentially violate international law. The increasing usage of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) illustrates how real life can overlap with the world of video games, as people find themselves remotely targeted from thousands of miles away. One drone operator has been quoted as saying, “Sometimes I felt like God hurling thunderbolts from afar.” In Pakistan alone, over 170 children have reportedly died as a result of CIA-operated drone strikes, according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Yet what one notices is a kind of creeping “acceptance” of such killings, even in certain so-called liberal circles. Earlier this year a Washington Post-ABC poll found that 83 percent of Americans approve of President Barack Obama’s drone policy, and 70 percent approve of his decision to keep Guantanamo Bay open.
What explains such disturbing statistics? Part of the explanation can be found in video games manufactured by companies who allow players to shoot, bomb or torture characters in a simulated environment. Similarly, in famous American horror films such as “Night of the Living Dead” and “Evil Dead,” audiences are programmed to unquestioningly accept the irrational and cartoon-like behavior of zombies and demons as typical of how “bad guys” behave.
Now, in the same vein as these video games and films, when news consumers are informed about “suspected militants” killed in a drone attack in Yemen or Pakistan, many unquestioningly accept what I would call the “zombie-like” narrative of militants put forward by politicians and the media. In other words, on a psychological level we are programmed to believe in a video game kind of reality. Many aren’t aware of the shocking fact that a few months back a New York Times article revealed how drone operators see “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants … unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
Yet such damning revelations haven’t softened the policy hawks in Washington. Rather, it was recently reported that the Pentagon has been looking into awarding “distinguished warfare medals” to drone operators. Such tactics are reminiscent of video games, which often entice players with rewards like “points” and “stars” in a clever use of psychological stimulants to motivate them to keep playing. In some popular games, at the end of each stage there is a boss-type character that must be defeated in order to progress to the next level (not too different to media reports of “suspected” high-ranking al-Qaeda figures killed by drone strikes.) But at least in a video game a player has an opportunity to finish the game once they have gone through all the different stages. The war on terror is never-ending and an example of myopic planning at the highest levels of US foreign policy.
In 1976, an arcade video game called “Death Race” by a company called Exidy ignited a lot of outrage and protests in America. In it, the player controlled a car that ran down gremlins, which would make a screaming sound when they were hit. In the decades which have followed, video game violence has exploded. Today, “Death Race” wouldn’t be considered controversial compared to more gory offerings that have come out since.
But the debate over whether video games lead to real life violence has continued. In a strange kind of way, it parallels the debate over whether drone strike killings could lead to violent retaliation by survivors. However, the premise appears to be not that innocent people, or people whose alleged crimes should have been tried in court, are being targeted without proper recourse to the law, but rather that such killings in “simulated worlds” like Waziristan could have consequences in “real life” -- in other words, for Americans who are more “real” then the “pixelated” Pakistanis, Yemenis and Somalis.
A video game reviewer always has to play a game before passing on their judgment. However the CIA’s drone warfare is one game I am happy not to get my joystick hands on.
*Syed Hamad Ali is an independent journalist based in London.