Alba Demiri 18/10/2022

The link between video games and ethics in international relations

On a random Tuesday, while spending time with a friend, it occurred to me that video games can be more than just a recreational activity; they can also be political and influential in the realm of international relations.

"What are you doing?" I asked

"Playing this videogame, look, Albania already conquered Serbia; I was ecstatic when I made that happen," – he answers while showing me his screen with a world map displayed.

"So, you play as Albania, and you control which state you invade?"


"So, basically, you are a decision-maker."

"Yeah, you can say that. It feels like I'm a 'politician'"

"Hold up, hold up, can you simulate the war in Ukraine?" I ask with curiosity and foolish excitement

"Sure. Look, I sent the troops over there; they're fighting right now," – he says while pointing at the tiny figures moving their small riffles around.

"Yeah…They are fighting right now." I say silently when I realize that this game represented more than just my friend's afternoon entertainment activity.

This essay will delve deeper into the relationship between video games and international relations. I will argue that video games influence and are shaped by international relations in various ways, first by analyzing how violent warfare and conflict-themed videogames contribute to the normalization and justification of wars and political aggression, therefore minimizing ethical decision-making in real life, and second by considering the risks of videogames being used as means of mass manipulation for political reasons.

A videogame is defined as "an electronic game in which players control images on a television or computer screen" (Britannica 1). International relations and videogames are inextricably linked because videogames "simulate international politics and place the player in the position of a decision-maker at a particular time and in a certain space" (Corliss, 2011, 7; de Zamaróczy, 2017, 158 qtd in., Kargas 2021).

Similar to other forms of media like film, photography, TV, and others, videogames are part of "popular culture" and have become a worldwide social and cultural phenomenon. In their virtual environment, videogames reflect a component of social reality, and consequently, they reveal present political dynamics. Hence, popular culture has become political. My friend playing, Dictators: No Peace Countryball is an excellent example of this; in an attempt to rewrite Kosovo's history through virtual reality, a Kosovar Albanian chose to play as the state of Albania and proceeded to invade and occupy Serbia in its name, which indicates the remaining implications of the '99 war in Kosovo, and overall conflicts in the Balkan region.

A lot of other successful videogames such as "Papers, please," "Watch Dogs," "Assassins Creed," "Call of Duty," "The Total War Series," "Crusader Kings 2", "Europa Universalis" etc. are based on motives of warfare, terrorism, and international relations. In this way, players get introduced to and faced with essential topics such as democracy, refugees, crisis situations, security, governance, and economic and social challenges. For instance, in "Papers, please," "the player is tested on his morality, corruptibility and investigative skills to determine who is and who is not a legitimate migrant" (Goertz 2015), and as a result, contemplate the moral dilemmas surrounding ethical decision making towards migration and refugees in the real world outside the screen.

However, besides the intellectual stimulation and space for reflection that these types of videogames provide for the players, it is crucial to recognize their underlying harmful effects that they pose to the proper understanding and establishment of ethical decision-making in international relations.

First, studies show that the extensive usage of wargames has generally resulted in citizens' legitimization, justification, and agreement on military operations, weaponization, and militarism (Ciut?, 2016, 207 qtd. in. Kargas et al.,2021). Videogames glorify war by rationalizing its methods and portraying military forces in a positive light, hence enabling false perceptions regarding the protection of human rights and the ethics of "just war" laws. This is coming as a result of how no matter how lifelike video games appear and sound, they often present anarchic armed battles in which decisions don't have repercussions. This conveys the wrong message to gamers about the legitimacy of humanitarian law and the need to comply with it during actual armed conflicts. In this light, Clarke, an Australian professor, poses questions worth pondering, such as "why can't players enjoy video games that truly reflect the dilemmas of modern combatants? Can video games be a positive medium of influence to reinforce understanding and respect for the law?" (Clark, 2012). Ethical morality and International Humanitarian Laws (IHO) appear to vanish in video games. In a similar manner, videogames also preserve the cultural and identity stereotype of "the other" between nations by fostering an environment of competition and rivalry instead of advocating for cooperation, peace, and mutual understanding.

Second, like other forms of multimedia, videogames also can be utilized as a "tool" of mass manipulation. Global politics are at risk from terrorist organizations and groups that try to promote their ideology and agendas through games. They falsely portray facts and events in a way that benefits them, describing the state as particularly aggressive toward them and their attacks as entirely justifiable. Furthermore, gamers establish an emotional connection and visibility to the terrorists through their avatar character (Kargas,2021). There is a possibility that this connection to the game and the terrorist character starts reflecting on the player's views of the real-life political issues regarding terrorism. After all, "violent video games were also reported to desensitize children towards violence and to decrease morality and empathy" (Masfety, 2016).

The link between video games and international humanitarian law (IHL) has yet to be explored and established, but nevertheless, it is essential to recognize their mutual impact on each other. Its negative effect lies in the fact that video games can create a space for excusing and rationalizing military conflict. Moreover, when terrorist groups are in charge of designing these images with the ultimate aim of spreading their destructive agendas, the risk increases. Nonetheless, it is significant that video games indicate social reality, and players gain insight from the mental stimulation and room for thought that these types of video games provide. From this perspective, videogame study may benefit researchers and scholars in grasping militarization's geopolitical, sociological, and cultural dimensions.

Illustration: Bigeye

Read the article in Albanian here.