Tech by VICE

What It's Like to Make a Military Shooter About Humanitarian Law

'Arma III' developers worked with the Red Cross to teach players about the real details of war most video games never touch.

by Matthew Gault
Sep 15 2017, 1:00pm

Image: Bohemia Interactive

Video game fans aren't war criminals, but they certainly play war criminals in their games. Popular franchises such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Wolfenstein depict players rampaging across conflict zones and repeatedly breaking the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law.

For several years now, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has pushed developers to design games that reflect the laws and show the consequences of total war. The ICRC spoke with video game publishers such as Activision and Electronic Arts, but none of them took the Red Cross up on the offer to build a more moral military shooter.

Bohemia Interactive, the Czech Republic developer behind the the super realistic military simulation series Arma, did.

Arma games aren't about running and gunning, they're about tough, tactical decisions and large scale conflict. Laws of War, the newest addition to the game for Arma III, continues Bohemia Interactive's tradition of realistic ambitions. This new expansion is more than just a pack of new weapons, maps, and a short campaign. It's an attempt by the company to create a tool-set integrating international humanitarian law into its military shooter. It's unlike anything I've ever played.

Its mini-campaign, Remnants of War, opens on a brutal death. The campaign is set in the months after the end of the conflict depicted in Arma III, and focuses on what comes after war ends—clean up, reconstruction, and disarmament.

As the game opens, the player controls a local mechanic as he wanders through the woods to bombed out ruins of the village that was once his home. As he walks, an aid worker and a journalist narrate his journey. In a few minutes, the player finds the church where he thinks his missing brother might be. Almost as soon as he crosses into town, he steps on a landmine and dies.

Fade to black and text comes on the screen, reminding us of the horror of landmines in armed conflict. Then players take control of the aid worker who narrated the mechanic's death—Nathan MacDade. He works for the International Development & Aid Project (an NGO modeled on the Red Cross) and he's in the area to disarm land mines. Remnants of War plays out as MacDade wanders through the ruins of the previous game's war, disarms landmines, talks to a journalist about the aftermath of war, and reminisces about the past.

The Red Cross' influence is all over Laws of War. Beyond the mini campaign, the game offers players scenarios where IDAP workers tutor soldiers on the importance of international humanitarian law. There are even training simulators where players patrol villages and hunt militants while the IDAP tracks their progress and fails them if they shoot civilians. And the simulation tracks the trajectory of a player's bullets so they can plan for the possibility of collateral damage.

It sounds easy, but when you're walking through a village where the militants and civilians look the same and are both armed…it can get tricky.

Laws of Waris a significant departure from previous games and Motherboard reached out to Bohemia Interactive's creative director Jay Crowe and project lead Joris ­Jan van 't Land via email to find out more about what this kind of law-conscious framework will add to gaming.

Motherboard: International humanitarian law is a heavy subject. Why tackle it?

Jay Crowe: It's certainly a difficult topic and, from the start, we had to accept one DLC [downloadable content] couldn't tackle the subject in its entirety. But we—and our players—are interested in complex things. Arma games create these big, sandboxy experiences of the modern battlefield and, the reality is, International Humanitarian Law is part of that.

How did the Red Cross get involved?

Joris-Jan van 't Land: Our working relationship with the ICRC dates back over five years. Back then the contact was more ad­ hoc, based on one of their specialists speaking with members of the Arma development team. He suggested small practical tweaks that would make the game represent IHL correctly. Those made their way to both Arma II and Arma III.

Crowe: Since then, the ICRC have visited our Czech design team to hold an IHL workshop with our developers. We received a basic introduction to the topic, and discussed opportunities together. They have always been very pragmatic about things, never forcing us in a certain direction, merely offering suggestions and advice. So when the idea for Laws of War DLC first came to us, we reached out and were met with a very positive response to this day.

Sitting through a rule of law seminar in a video game. Image: Bohemia Interactive

Why was it important to bring in the Red Cross?

Land: Just like us working with military consultants to validate our combat authenticity, so too did we want to represent humanitarian aid work as authentically as possible. We decided early on we would not include a real ­world NGO in the game, so we crafted the Armaverse International Development & Aid Project (IDAP) faction. By speaking to the ICRC we were able to add some authentic details, such as how they mark their vehicles in conflict areas.

Crowe: We are also obviously no IHL lawyers ourselves, and it's a complex topic. The ICRC have proofread our in­game texts directly related to IHL and proposed corrections where necessary. We've done our best to ensure the information in the game is accurate based on this feedback, but we'd always refer to primary sources of information for the most up ­to ­date and complete references.

What themes are you trying to capture with 'Laws of War' and how does the game reflect them?

Land: The Arma series has always shown war from many perspectives, without clear black ­and­ white sides to a conflict. Here we had another opportunity to show the complexity of war, especially in the asynchronous combat we see a lot these days. The 'good guys' aren't always good, and there's often more to the story of the 'bad guys'. In the "Remnants of War" mini­-campaign, for example, we wanted to show the impact of war on one specific civilian town, from all relevant perspectives.

Crowe: The mini­-campaign is rooted in that view on conflict, but we also wanted to draw attention to the work that NGOs like IDAP do around the world, exploring the roles they take on, and the challenges they face. So, when we tell the story through the eyes of our slightly embittered ­IDAP veteran.

Land: Specifically, we've tried to translate some core principles of IHL to the playable content in the DLC: Distinction (through the use and consequences of weapons such as mines and cluster bombs), Precaution (by using informational leaflets to warn before air strikes and stressing good intelligence ­gathering) and Proportionality (when evaluating collateral damage in scenarios). Of
course IDAP's activities are other clear examples of gameplay, such as the retrieval of air­dropped supply packages.

Did you design 'Laws of War' with the modding community in mind?

Land: We hope that means taking inspiration from our work and building upon it, but we also accept that could also mean something quite different! If the day after release we see custom missions making the rules that constrict war crimes exponentially harsher, or completely non­existent, that's all part of the deal. Laws of War adds more depth to our platform, and beyond our official content, these tools will be put in the hands of our community.

These changes cater to hardcore players who disable most in-game helpers, because they did not have a method of being warned about nearby mines before (now they will hear audio cues and see nearby explosives on an info panel). Cluster munitions too have a very relevant extra level of depth, by simulating random malfunctioning bomblets that stay behind as landmines of sorts.

Crowe: It's also fair to say that we have experimented quite a bit with our official content post-release. We know that many Arma veterans will be looking forward to some official single player content, which, for the most part, means our mini-campaign, "Remnants of War."

As far as those toolsets go, how does collateral damage and civilian death work in the game?

Land: The primary consequence for killing unlawful targets (civilians, but also members of your own faction for example), has been with us since the start of the Arma series. We refer to it as the 'Renegade­-mechanic'. It's rather a blunt, but effective, mechanic that turns members of your own faction against you, and also takes any leadership away from you. You will actually become an enemy and threat to everyone. Scenario debriefings also list unlawful kills and destruction, which affect the general scenario 'rating'.

Any unlawful kills of civilian people or even animals will contribute to the switch to renegade status. That also includes the destruction of civilian property, such as vehicles and buildings.

Joris: Because we simulate weapon systems and projectiles in quite some detail, collateral damage is an automatic consequence of using means of war in a given context. We don't need to do anything special to simulate collateral damage, since it happens in the sandbox by simulation. If you do drop a dumb bomb onto a civilian town to target a military convoy passing through, chances are high you will hit not only military targets.

What are your thoughts on other games that have tackled similar themes? I'm thinking specifically of 'Spec­ Ops: The Line.'

Crowe: Spec-Ops is a fascinating example, it felt like a stepping-stone towards the kind of mature themes or storytelling our industry can aim for and achieve. The team at Yager created something that really put players at the uncomfortable, reflective heart of a commentary on war and on games about war. I'd have to call out This War of Mine as another fine example of an intense, memorable exploration of a heavy subject.

Land: Looking even broader at games you might not expect, I've even experienced interesting IHL-like sub-plots in Bioware RPGs. Dragon Age has some interesting commentary on war, conflict, 'humanity' (does this term apply to elves?), and more. Not only contemporary war games have an opportunity to discuss these themes, and in no way does it have to negatively impact the entertainment value either.

How have fans and the international community reacted to Laws of War ?

Land: A focus on the laws of armed conflict deepens the authentic nature of the game. If we can pass along some humanitarian values to players, and even potential future military recruits, that's a great bonus. We've already received heartfelt reactions from real-world aid workers, active military personnel, veterans, and players, that have made the whole experience very rewarding to us as developers.

Red Cross
Arma 3