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.