Limitations of the scope of acceptable violence and the presence of international humanitarian law in popular computer games set in the realities of war are the subject of research conducted by Mateusz Piątkowski, PhD, of the Faculty of Law and Administration, University of Łódź.
Computer games – especially those set in the realities of war – have become one of the most popular forms of entertainment. Interactive “shooters” and complex strategies with complex mechanics stand out among them. PhD Mateusz Piątkowski of the Faculty of Law and Administration at the University of Łódź examines whether and to what extent the creators of role-playing games incorporate themes related to limits on the scope of permissible violence in armed conflict and how the scenarios of these games relate to international humanitarian law.
“Games of this type – in addition to their informational layer – also carry a considerable emotional load and can be a stimulator of socially undesirable behaviour. Such as the Grand Theft Auto series of games, whose plot involves committing crimes or other acts of an immoral nature. Many players recall the +No Russian+ mission in the game Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2, in which the player participates in a terrorist attack combined with the mass shooting of people gathered at the airport,” PhD Piatkowski explained.
The Lodz-based researcher observed that reference to international humanitarian law, which limits the scale of destruction and violence, occurs in games to very different degrees. Some of their producers exclude the possibility of civilians appearing on the battlefield beforehand, forgetting, however, that combatants are also subject to rights and obligations under international law.
“Other games even affirm making the civilian population the object of attack – such as the conquest of a settlement in the Total War series, where the player can decide to annihilate the population. At the opposite end of the spectrum are titles like ARMA III, where an add-on for this modern battlefield simulator called +Laws of War+ has been prepared in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross. The player has a choice of several scenarios related to warfare, but in compliance with international humanitarian law,” the researcher pointed out.
A lawyer from Łódź, in his work, carried out within the framework of the Initiative of Excellence – Research University (IDUB) competition, attempts to answer the question of whether in computer games set in the context of an armed conflict, the player’s behaviour is in any way characterized or determined by the norms of international humanitarian law. He would also like to examine to what extent states, which are obliged to implement ius in bello norms “in all circumstances”, can and should influence game developers to promote humanitarian law also in virtual reality.
Experts’ observations suggest that the level of appeal, graphical and story complexity of the games continues to increase, and their popularity was further enhanced during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data released by Valve, owner of Steam – the largest gaming platform on personal computers – during the peak of the lockdown in April 2020, there were nearly 24 million registered users from all over the world logged in simultaneously, with nearly 7 million of them playing games offered by the platform at the same time. This record was broken during another lockdown in early 2021, with nearly 27 million users logged in at the same time.