But that disaster didn’t happen to the game’s developers, Bohemia Interactive. It actually struck the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), one of the oldest and most respected humanitarian organizations in the world. The story begins in 2010 with a research project that spun slightly out of control.
At the time, Christian Rouffaer had been working for the ICRC for nearly 10 years. As a former Swiss artillery officer, he spent much of his early humanitarian career working on the ground in places like Afghanistan, South Sudan, Darfur, Syria, Yemen and Ivory Coast. Because of his military experience, he was eventually assigned as an armed forces liaison. He traveled to war zones around the world, embedding himself with young armies and teaching them about the laws of war.
“This is our mandate,” Rouffaer told Polygon. “The ICRC doesn’t care about the reasons people are fighting. We don't care at all. There is no right or wrong. People are fighting, and this is human nature. We just try to assist people as much as we can, and not only the civilians. One of our core mandates is to help wounded soldiers and sick soldiers, soldiers who are out of combat or taken prisoner. And, of course, civilians as well.”
His time as a liaison was spent mostly with young militaries, in countries who were rebuilding their armed forces or standing them up for the first time. His students were soldiers, and the curriculum included education on the Geneva Convention and other international treaties that define war crimes such as summary execution, the unfair treatment of prisoners and the destruction of civilian targets in a warzone.
“I did that for two years,” Rouffaer said. “Then, I went back to Geneva, Switzerland [the home of the ICRC]. At the time, my boss asked me if I knew anything about video games.”
It was a strange question, to be sure. But Rouffaer had played games his entire life, and even ran an internet gaming cafe for a time. Because of that experience, his boss assigned him a new and unusual task. He would spend the next two months, sometimes up to six hours a day, cataloging the war crimes perpetrated by military forces in modern video games.
His research, delivered as an aside during the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva, Switzerland, led to an avalanche of bad press. Several media organizations went so far as to report that the ICRC was looking to prosecute an estimated 600 million gamers for virtual war crimes. The most damning article, an opinion piece from conservative commentator Craig Berg in Australia’s National Times, asked if the ICRC had “virtually lost the plot.”
“No person has ever believed that Castle Wolfenstein is a guide to just or unjust behaviour,” Berg wrote. “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.”
“The whole thing blow up completely,” Rouffaer said. “I remember I was at home, it was 10:00 in the evening, and suddenly my boss called me and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got problems. It's spreading everywhere and everybody is starting to go ballistic.’”
The ICRC quickly went into damage control, issuing a statement that it did indeed know the difference between real-life and video games. But internally, Rouffaer and his colleagues realized that they had struck a nerve.
Here were thousands of people talking about international humanitarian law (IHL) for the first time. And so, the ICRC quietly began to reach out to game developers for a dialogue.
“We sent a letter, an official letter from my director, to many major studios inviting a discussion,” Rouffaer said. Many of those letters were ignored, and what few conversations there were the ICRC is largely unable to discuss.
“The video game industry in general is not necessarily very happy to make public that we have conversations,” he said. “They are afraid of being seen with an organization like us, or a humanitarian organization in general. They think their gamers or their fans will get scared that their games will turn into training courses or that morality, as they say, will take over everything and games will not be about shooting anything anymore. That they’ll turn into simulations where you are delivering meal powder to babies.”
But one studio responded with a thoughtful letter of their own: Bohemia Interactive.
“One day, I got this long message from Ivan Buchta, a game designer at from Bohemia Interactive who really took the time to write a lot of things.”
Before long, Rouffaer was headed to Prague for a face-to-face meeting and a presentation to the Arma 3 development team about IHL. It was, by and large, the very same presentation Rouffaer gave to his students in armies around the world.
It is that presentation that inspired the Laws of War DLC. In it, players take on the role of an international humanitarian aid worker. They are tasked with clearing unexploded ordinance from the same battlefields which they fought over in Arma 3’s base game. In the roughly five-hour mini-campaign, players see that fictional conflict from all sides, including from the perspective of civilians caught in the crossfire.
One irony of the DLC is that in order to fully portray the horrors of war the team at Bohemia Interactive had to design a new and controversial weapon system for the game. Cluster munitions are singular weapons that break apart before impact, spreading hundreds of tiny bomblets over a large target area. Their use was banned by more than 100 countries in 2008.
In Laws of War, players will witness the aftermath of the use of cluster munitions. Years after the fighting is over, unexploded ordinance still litters the battlefield and players must carefully remove it.
The decision to include prohibited weaponry was difficult for Rouffaer, but be believes that it created a necessary outcome for players.
“Back when I was playing six hours of video games per day for the ICRC,” Rouffaer said, “I was also talking at the time with quite a few people from the armed forces. They were not comfortable at all with this kind of stuff that I was finding in those games, When you are a soldier you know your job. You know what to do. You know what is legal, what is illegal. And then, because of a game, suddenly people believe that you are a butcher and you are kind of a cowboy and do whatever you want on the battlefield? It's much more complex than that.
“I'm pretty sure that before this DLC, quite a few of the gamers who played Arma 3 had no clue that there were rules that soldiers had to follow.”
By creating prohibited cluster munitions as an in-game asset, and by also teaching the controversies surrounding their use, Rouffaer believes that gamers have a more complete picture of modern warfare for the first time.
“Everyone on the forums says, ‘Yes! Thank you! Give us civilians and humanitarian workers and cluster munitions and we will use these new guns to eradicate as many of the first group as possible,” Rouffaer said. “But by saying that, it means that they will have consciously been saying, ‘We are going to break the law.’ It means that, even if it's at a very low level, they now have an understanding that there was a law in the first place.”