Skip to content
Published January 18, 2021

I came across this paper in an engineering conference, outside the normal stream of serious game design discussion. It discusses the development of a computer war game for training military cadets in the principles of Just War Theory and International Humanitarian Law. It recognises the difficult of transferring theories of war learnt from reading to the heat of the battlefield, where nothing is as tidy as the principles might suggest. The game is intended as a simulated tactical scenario where cadets have to make these difficult decisions on the ground.

The scenario is based around three fundamental principles of just war conduct:

  • The principle of discrimination, which prohibits any direct attacks on non-combatants or their property.
  • The principle of proportionality, which states that the harm caused to civilians or civilian property is not excessive in relation to the military advantage.

these are complicated by

  • The principle of double effect, which recognises that actions may simultaneous have good and evil effects. In such cases the action may still be justified if the evil effect is not the direct or intended result of the action, and the intended good effect is proportional to the foreseen evil effect.

Since is almost every military action is going to harm civilians in some way, the process of weighing up proportionality is a vital skill for military officers.

Unfortunately, details about the actual game are vague and focus mostly on the development environment and not on the design. It appears to be a first-person shooter style of game which presents a situation in which players must locate and rescue an ally being held by terrorists operating within a village in a foreign state. Terrorists and civilians are living side-by-side so care must be taken to not take to kill civilians. A wide variety of options are said to be available, including air assault, tanks, UAVs, submarines, and more but it is unclear whether all of these are implemented within the simulation, or whether they are just part of a pencil-and-paper planning phase. A scoring scheme is proposed to evaluate the degree of civilian deaths, but again details on this are unclear.

It is a shame there is not more information provided, as this integration of ethical decision-making and wargaming seems like a natural fit and a useful tool in military training. One major hurdle I see in this kind of design is maintaining moral focus and sensitivity under systemic gameplay. There is a reason why the majority of ethical games involve scripted scenarios: it is easier to foreground the moral significance of a choice when you have strong authorial control. In a mechanic-driven war game, it would be easy for the player to ethically disengage from the significance of their actions. This would appear to be the critical problem that needs to be addressed, both in the simulation and in real-life war. How well we can solve this remains to be seen.



Leave a Reply