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Red Cross Claims Makers Of 'Prison Architect' Violated The Geneva Conventions By Using A Red Cross

from the virtual-war-criminals dept

Let’s start this off by stipulating that the Red Cross is an organization well known for doing very real humanitarian work. While some have raised questions as to exactly how ethically it spends donor money, the organization is still on the front lines in helping those suffering from natural and man-made disasters. All that being said, the Red Cross has also shown itself to wander over the line of sense when it comes to both video games and policing some of its iconography. Recall that the Red Cross insisted, for instance, that games that allowed players to commit what would constitute war crimes also be required to include virtual punishments for those actions. On policing the use of its icons, the organization has suggested in the past that the use of its red cross symbol on theatre costumes constitutes a violation of The Geneva Conventions.

These two realms in which the Red Cross likes to play crazy have now converged, with Mark Morris and Chris Delay, makers of the notorious video game Prison Architects, having received notice that the game’s inclusion of an ambulance emblazoned with a red cross constituted a violation of The Geneva Conventions.

Days before Christmas, Delay and Morris received a concerning email from the British Red Cross.

“My immediate reason for writing is that it has been brought to our attention that in your game ‘Prison Architect’ a red cross emblem is displayed on vehicles,” it reads. “Those responsible may be unaware that use of the red cross emblem is restricted under the Geneva Conventions for the Protection of War Victims of 12 August 1949, and that unauthorised use of this sign in the United Kingdom is an offence under the Geneva Conventions Act 1957.”

The two had made a mistake stemming from a common misconception that a red cross denoted health services. It doesn’t. And The Geneva Conventions do indeed offer international protection to the Red Cross icon, theorizing that allowing other uses of it would dilute Red Cross worker’s safety when operating in war zones and elsewhere. The idea is that the rules of war ought to prevent opposing military forces pretending to be Red Cross workers in order to gain a strategic advantage.

How the Red Cross believes this goal bleeds into the virtual world of running a prison is anyone’s guess.

Yet the use of the red cross for just those reasons is common. A Google search for ‘health pack’ returns dozens of results for everything from Doom to Halo. Outside of videogames, it appears in comic books, movies, and even theater. With misuse of the symbol so apparently widespread, Delay tells me he was a bit upset to find that Prison Architect had been one instance where the hammer would fall.

“Red crosses are such a minor five-pixel wide symbol in Prison Architect,” he argues. “There’s one on the ambulance and one on the back of a health pack. They are so tiny. I think it’s ridiculous. It’s not like we had these enormous red crosses everywhere on the sides of vans in war zones. It’s this miniscule pixelated red cross you can barely make out.”

Trademark bullying is one thing, but to throw around something as important as the international rules of war in order to keep a few pixels out of a video game is both silly and disrespectful of those same rules. No reasonable person would think that those that wrote The Geneva Conventions intended it to be used in this way. Nor can anyone explain why this kind of protectionism is levied so randomly. And there are grave consequences associated with the threat the Red Cross is issuing.

The real issue, at least where Delay and Morris live, seems to have more serious consequences than just being sued. In the United Kingdom, the provisions of the Geneva Conventions were incorporated into British law in 1957. Prison Architect’s misuse of the emblem wasn’t just breaking the Geneva Conventions (which feels kind of like some distant bogeyman), but the laws of their own country. That’s why, upon getting the email, they were quick to comply. Boot up Prison Architect and call in some paramedics, and you’ll no longer see that red cross. Now it’s green. Delay tells me the change took seconds to make in Photoshop. “It’s not worth taking the stand,” Morris says. “You have to pick your battles.”

True, but that doesn’t render what the Red Cross did any less silly. If having lawyers draft these kinds of threat letters is how the organization is spending donor money, that doesn’t say much for its otherwise notable reputation.

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Comments on “Red Cross Claims Makers Of 'Prison Architect' Violated The Geneva Conventions By Using A Red Cross”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Except that The Red Cross does not own the trademark for that symbol. It’s actually owned by Johnson & Johnson. They merely allow the red Cross to use it in limited circumstances. They tried selling medical supplies with the red Cross on it, and J&J put a stop to that. Quickly.
I know it is not suing under a trademark claim, but…Yeah…Stupid.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re:

er, no.

That was Johnson & Johnson’s fantasy when they sued the Red Cross. The result:

The federal court rejected Johnson & Johnson’s position and ruled for the American Red Cross, holding that federal law authorizes the American Red Cross to use the Red Cross emblem in the sale of mission-related items like first aid and disaster preparedness kits and to license other firms to use its name and emblem to sell such products. The court noted in particular that the American Red Cross had been doing so for over a century, and that, ironically, Johnson & Johnson had once itself sought to be a licensee of the American Red Cross. After the court rejected the substance of Johnson & Johnson’s complaint, the parties ultimately settled their differences, and the American Red Cross remains free to use its emblem in the sale of life-saving, disaster preparedness, and other mission-related products.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

The Red Cross has become de-genericized. Use the Star of Life instead.

I wrote a blog piece about this.

TLDR: The Red Cross (and its sister symbols, including the Red Crescent and Red Losenge) was originally intended to become genericized as a universal symbol that could be posted anywhere to mean get your first aid here. In the mid 20th century, The Red Cross organization wanted more and more for the symbol to be identified with the organization, and less just as a generic symbol for first aid.

At first The Red Cross started challenging use by toymakers and television studios, but even civilian medical services it didn’t like started getting challenged. Early responses were to repaint crosses red-orange, or to put a white cross on a red field.

Since then the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration created the Star of Life, a big blue asterisk, often adorned with a Rod of Asclepius. While the US NHTSA still holds the rights to the Star of Life, they’re encouraging its use as a generic First Aid here symbol. Almost all first aid kits, ambulances and hospitals in the US have replaced Red Crosses and similar symbols with the Star of Life.

Anonymous Coward says:

The makers of Prison Architect had a video on the subject where they go into a bit more detail about the why behind this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciTkI6FqZqwa), although some of it is just speculation.

Part of it was a misunderstanding of the game where very ignorant people can perceive (like the lawyers behind the Red Cross letter) the prisoners as being forced into a slave labor situation which then has a connection to the Red Cross in some convoluted and utterly ridiculous manner.

Anonymous Coward says:

This is a legal issue and has nothing to do with the organisation in Geneva (the ICRC) , which is why the letter came from the British Red Cross. (The Red Cross is largely a federation of national organisations).
All Geneva Convention signatories have to pass national legislation implementing the Convention in their national laws, and one of these requirements is that the symbol be protected. This is not because it’s used by Red Cross personnel (of whom there are few anyway) but because it designates personnel and vehicles from the military medical services of the combatants. These personnel may not carry weapons and the vehicles may not be armed: as a consequence they are given non-combatant status and may not be attacked (it’s a crime to do so). The law (fundamentally similar in every country so far as I know) protects the symbol from misuse. You can argue that the law is being wrongly invoked here, or you can try to change the Geneva Convention if you like, but that’s it.

David (profile) says:

That is a red plus sign.

Not a red ‘cross’.

Doubling the length of the vertical component would make a proper ‘cross’ out of it, leaving behind the plus sign. Now synonymous with greed and the various red cross organizations.

Although the Star of Life is better solution as it avoids both the idiots at RC and religious overtones. Unless you want the religious overtones that go with a red cross. Dripping in blood. Ooh, that’s a keeper.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: That is a red plus sign.

Any perpendicular intersection of two lines can be called a croix or cross. The specific lengths of segments are particular to proper characters, including the Protestant Cross (or Catholic Crucifix, which properly has a man nailed to it)

When the Red Cross was considering its symbol, there were debates as to whether it should be associated with Christianity or not, and they decided on the red cross with arms of even length. So as to be related, but not too related.

This is why there are other symbols such as the Red Crescent used in places where the croix is contraversial. The Red Losenge is used where crosses and crescents are both contraversial. (Though, before, they had a number of alternative symbols, including a red swastika.)

In the meantime, a plus sign is still a cross, as are crosshairs. They’re just not a proper religious cross.

Arioch (profile) says:

Silly, Stupid and Pointless

It seems that the salaries in the top echelon of the Red Cross are now matching corporate level status and attracting the idiots that think that “the brand” must be protected no matter what the cost. I still donate, but I expect the money to go to the needy.
I may have to have a rethink as I see no need to fund shyster “lawyers” bringing absurd lawsuits.

Anonymous Coward says:

I suspect the Red Cross can ill-afford to draw attention to it’s history.

Given that it helped the Nazis and also has a massive blackhole in it’s finances where it raised funds in the hundreds of millions for Haiti but then the money in it’s entirety (except for building 6 flimsy wooden shacks!) to its executive board as ‘bonuses’ for raising the money!

Anonymous Coward says:

The Red Cross’s over-zealous ‘marketing’ has pretty much eliminated the symbol. In many parts of the world, a green cross is most commonly recognised as meaning first aid, medical treatment and so on.

Note that the makers of PA (good game, by the way) changed the cross to green? Not another colour, not another symbol. A green cross. Because that’s now more commonly recognised.

But if you’re colourblind, that might not make much of a difference…

Shadow Firebird says:

International Symbol -- well, it is

The red cross *is* an international symbol of health services. If it were not iconic in that use, multiple video games would not literally be using it as an icon.

Indeed, until I just googled “UK ambulance”, I could have sworn they were all white with red crosses. How confusing.

Just like words in a dictionary, it’s common usage that makes an icon represent a thing, not some central authority.

Elliander Eldridge says:

I'm going to call their Bluff in my next game

I don’t see how the Geneva Convention applies to anything other than War. It’s a treaty, which nations obey, not individuals.

To draw an analogy, if a soldier rapes murders a prisoner of war, that is a war crime and in violation of the Geneva Convention. What isn’t a violation of the Geneva Convention is a civilian or even a soldier raping and murdering a civilian or an enemy combatant from a non recognized state. That’s the exact reasoning that the United States uses to justify torturing terror suspects, after all.

So if the Geneva Convention does not apply to anyone outside of its narrow scope in regards to torture, then it clearly cannot apply to anything else.

If the Red Cross is so convinced that it is so broadly functioning has to apply to their symbol in all potential uses, shouldn’t they expend their efforts to stop torture?

As far is the meaning of the symbol itself goes, it’s just a red plus sign. Red is associated with health, and plus means to increment. I’d probably use a red plus to represent an increasing of health, and a blue plus to represent an increasing of magic. I would then use a red minus and a blue minus for decreasing.

Of course, if the Red Cross can get any courts to agree that doing so is a war crime, then they should have no problem stopping all cases of torture throughout the world, so I’m going to call their Bluff. I wasn’t intending to do anything like that, but the audacity of their claim really ticks me off.

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