Military training vs. “serious games”: human rights & video games

By James Petty

By James Petty. This article is part of a series on human rights and video games.

In most reviews and critical examinations of video games, analysis tends to focus on a few specific elements of gaming: violence (how much and what kind), narrative (its quality and how it is delivered) and player experience (what it is like to play a game – whether the game is enjoyable or not). These have obvious ramifications for human rights dialogues as violence, even that depicted in a game, should be critiqued. Other aspects that still get a mention are the innovative ways that the technology that supports gaming is utilised – advances in graphics and motion capture, new gaming engines, new points of interaction between the game and the player (e.g. controllers, touch screens and tilt sensors). However there are other, less spoken about aspects of gaming: the way gaming or its hardware is utilised in areas not traditionally associated with the culture or industry of gaming. For example, gamer-tech will often be touched on in reviews but usually only to comment upon a game’s aesthetics or mechanics. But the technologies associated with games have many different applications and are often used in unexpected ways: some good, some not so.

There is a wealth of criticism levelled at games regarding their violent content and the impact it may have upon gamers. This is a contentious, and above all complex, point – one that I won’t take up here. Some of the concerns expressed that attend this issue are valid, others are definitely not. Some critics in this vein claim that games realistically simulate the use of firearms, knives, explosives and warfare tactics. The reality is that most don’t – even games that utilise “light guns” (plastic controllers shaped like a gun, traditionally found in arcades) do not accurately simulate what it is like to carry, aim, fire or reload a real gun. A light gun is to a real gun what a postcard of Everest is to the real thing. In recent years, however, the military (especially in the U.S.) has sought to bridge this gap. They have begun utilising game tech for recruiting and training purposes. This goes far beyond using flight simulators to train fighter pilots – the U.S. Army and Navy have both awarded multi-million dollar contracts to game technology developer Havok to develop new virtual training curricula, with programs that include combat simulations, helicopter docking, ship maintenance and anti-submarine warfare. By “gamifying” aspects of their training programs, the military can engage (and arguably exploit) a community already primed to see such activities as enjoyable. In reality, if combat in games is becoming more “real”, it is due to the vested interests of the military and their investment in the industry.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is what is often referred to as “serious games”. The most well-known are medical games designed to assist with or enhance recovery and convalescence. Re-Mission is a third-person shooter developed by game studio Realtime Associates for teens and young adults undergoing treatment for certain types of cancer. The player controls the character “Roxxi”, a nano-robot injected into a body (symbolising the player/patient’s own body) who uses a variety of weapons to fight cancer at a cellular level. The game isn’t just about getting patients to engage with their treatment by giving them a tangible sense of active participation, it is designed to produce specific psychological and behavioural outcomes strongly associated with successful cancer treatment.  The game not only provides comfort and a sense of optimism (with benefits akin to those associated with placebos), but produces measurable outcomes known to assist with recovery. While Re-Mission is the most well-known of these games, they are not limited to cancer or post-treatment recovery. There are other titles designed to help rehabilitate stroke victims, assist with mental health issues such as depression and autism (especially in children and teens), as well as helping people with serious addiction problems understand their behaviour. Now there is even a MSc in Serious Game Development offered at several universities and institutes of technology.

The issue of mental health occasionally arises in relation to video games, though rarely in a positive way. A lot of research is conducted in the hope of finding some direct causal link between video games and poor mental health, especially in youth. Of course there are correlates (as there are with many social phenomena), but none have been proven to be directly causal. In fact, we know very little about the potential effects of gaming on mental health. It is no surprise though given the popularity of gaming, especially in young men (a group notorious for poor mental health and resistance to treatment), that mental health is something often addressed via video games. There are many games that are either designed specifically to address mental illness, or that have been found to be beneficial when included in therapy regimes.  SPARX is an example of the former: it was designed specifically to address depression in teens by teaching them therapeutic techniques and coping skills, and was shown to effect better outcomes for those participating in standard therapy alone.  Bejewelled, a downloadable app puzzle game available on smartphones has been proposed as a clinical treatment for depression and anxiety with encouraging results so far. Where this trend ends can get blurry; some recent indie titles are so poignant , affecting and beautiful that one could hypothesise (without having done anything resembling actual research) that such games have positive outcomes for the mental health of the gamers. The main purpose of games is to engage the player, and games like Braid (a game where mind-and-time bending puzzles symbolise the difficulties of relationship dynamics) or Journey (a game so full of existential jouissance that some players reporting crying with happiness) elicit powerful reactions from the player. It would be a difficult argument to mount that such a thing was bad for you.

When your average gamer hears the words “educational games” most would roll their eyes (including myself). However, not all educational games are just about learning your times tables or spelling. Some are far more exciting; for example, games that teach people how to respond to dangerous situations. The genre “disaster survival” sounds as though it may include some big budget, blockbuster titles, but it doesn’t. These games focus on teaching communities how to respond to disastrous events, such as earthquakes, tidal waves and nuclear meltdowns. These games mostly have niche markets and are designed for specific communities or groups – one is aimed Italian high school students to teach them what to do if an earthquake hits their school. Others focus on things like monitoring forest fires and developing action plans, while others address social issues, like one designed to help British teenagers recognise sexual coercion.

Another in this genre is a game developed for the Washington Military Department’s Emergency Management Division. The game, unimaginatively titled The Tsunami Survival Challenge Game is an “all ages” game (though aimed predominantly at children), designed to instil in the player the proper protocols and procedures to follow in the event of a tsunami. It is a simple Flash game played over the internet and so doesn’t come close to the advanced gameplay and technology of Re-Mission, but it doesn’t need them. The game’s purpose isn’t to effect therapeutic outcomes for seriously ill patients, it is simply to provide a simple and easily remembered mental checklist in a non-intimidating way. The beneficial effects of such games can be hard to measure as the kinds of events they are designed for are rare. Further, after such an event, the efficacy of a children’s game is not likely to be at the top of anyone’s priorities. But the game isn’t designed to save lives in the same way Re-Mission is – its focus is broad and mimetic, its purpose social, rather than biological.

And finally, a more abstract example. In 2009 the Council of Europe released a set of guidelines for the human rights of gamers. That is, they drew up guidelines that game developers and their products should adhere to so as not to undermine or interdict upon the human rights of those who play their games. The guidelines spell out the ways that games could impact or impinge upon those playing them and provides guidance on how to avoid this. These include freedom of expression, to bodily and mental integrity and the freedom to exercise their own free will. This may seem silly, but given the engrossing nature and increasing capacity of video games for realistic and life-like depictions, this may become an important issue.   Some lines that previously seemed impenetrable are becoming increasingly permeable. Much like Facebook and Twitter have done for privacy laws, gaming is going to push the boundaries of previously distinct legal concepts and categories, such as bodily and psychological integrity, manipulation, duress and exploitation.   As games and the way we play them evolve, these issues will need to be updated and reworked to keep up with an industry that in 30 short years, has gone from an unheard of niche pastime to one of the main driving forces behind so many technological developments and the fastest growing entertainment industry in the world.