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War Games: Part I

How does the experience of non-combatants shape the public's understanding of warfare?


This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

If war is hell, what is the hope of laws to constrain it? For observers of war, it can be easy to assume that war itself is unbound by law, that the directed execution of violence is a brutal race to use force first and best. The experience of actual combatants with war and its rules is complex and varied and can find expression across centuries of warfare. The experience of non-combatants, especially in Western countries, is changing, in ways that may inform how publics understand their militaries at war.

In “Modern Lawfare: Exploring the Relationship between Military First-Person Shooter Video Games and the ‘War is Hell’ Myth” authors Neil C. Renic and Sebastian Kaempf specifically look at the way video games, as immersive media, change the popular perception of war.

The experience of non-combatants, especially in Western countries, is changing, in ways that may inform how publics understand their militaries at war.

“War is a rule-governed enterprise, not to the degree that most would prefer but to a degree that confers some measure of protection upon those impacted. Much of the public lacks sufficient recognition of this fact. Too often, battlefield misconduct, particularly when undertaken by ‘our side,’ is viewed by Western audiences as the inevitable by-product of war’s immutable status as an ungoverned and ungovernable domain,” write the authors.

First-person shooters, or FPSs, are video games that primarily place players in the role of armed combatant. Often, the games give players a lot of latitude about how they can move and fight in a space, but bind the players to follow a fairly structured plot.

“When FPSs do feature civilian populations, sufficient emphasis is rarely given to their inviolable status on the battlefield. These games typically either downplay, or disregard entirely, key elements of the laws of war. Players may directly target civilians, the neutrality of humanitarian actors may be violated, and prisoners of war can be killed and occasionally tortured — all without penalty,” write the authors. “This distortive realism impacts upon the cultural framing of actual warfare, given the wide dissemination of these games to audiences who are themselves increasingly disconnected from the physical experience of armed conflict.”

The authors specifically discuss 2019’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare,” a game that explicitly addresses the use of chemical weapons as a war crime in its text. While Modern Warfare engages with the existence of laws of warfare, it also allows players to use certain internationally prohibited weapons used by the player, like white phosphorus and exploding bullets. In addition, the player protagonist is told by superiors that rules of engagement are hindering combat effectiveness, and the player witnesses a colleague make threats against civilians used to force confessions.

“The situational pressures that incentivize battlefield criminality can be, and typically are, resisted,” write the authors. “Military FPSs can better reflect this, by giving players the opportunity to endure and overcome battlefield hardship and discharge their legal responsibilities — to discriminate between the targetable and non-targetable, to protect rather than prey upon the vulnerable, and to implement tactics that best limit the risks of incidental civilian harm.”

In other words, by showcasing war crimes but refusing to allow players to avoid partaking in them, games like Modern Warfare make virtual war a hellscape grimmer than the reality we live in, where the laws of war help better soldiers to protect civilians from their most bloodthirsty colleagues.

Kelsey D. Atherton


Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.


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