Death From Above

How video games could help prevent battlefield tragedies like the one revealed by WikiLeaks.

Still from WikiLeaks video

Whether this video is evidence of a war crime committed by U.S. troops in Iraq or not, one argument seems beyond dispute: “It seems like they are playing video games with people’s lives,”said Julian Assange, whose site WikiLeaks released the footage taken from a U.S. Apache helicopter as it sprayed gunfire on a group of men, including two Reuters employees, in Baghdad in 2007.

It was my first thought, too. The video, shot in black and white from a helicopter circling above a Baghdad neighborhood, will be familiar to anyone who has played the game Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare or its sequel, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The first game features a level called “Death From Above,” in which the player assumes the role of a gunner on an AC-130 gunship as it circles a small village. Winning means shooting at tiny silhouettes as they flee from a church. The sequel allows the player to circle a compound in an AH-64 Apache helicopter—much like in the WikiLeaks video—and mow down enemies for 100 points each.

Blaming video games for real-world violence is old hat. Yes, research has linked video games to increased levels of aggression in children, but none has definitely proved that they cause it. To be fair, Assange’s point is more subtle than that. He’s not saying American gunners mistakenly shoot innocent men because they grew up playing video games. He’s suggesting they do so because the killing itself feels like a game.

But even this is too simplistic. Modern warfare is becoming more like a video game, most obviously by increasing the distance between soldiers and their targets. But at the same time, warfare video games are becoming more realistic—and not just in the blood-and-guts way. Many of them force players to follow the rules of engagement and make difficult judgment calls about when to shoot—and when not to. (Whether the troops in the video violated the rules of engagement is still unclear.) Some games are even designed to prevent incidents like the 2007 tragedy from happening.

The best-known game to deal with real-world battlefield scenarios is America’s Army, a popular multiplayer first-person shooter introduced by the U.S. Army in 2002 and the gold standard in “militainment.” The game started as a recruitment tool, but the Army has since used it in group training as well. (It’s also available to the public for download.) The goal isn’t to destroy the enemy. It’s to work together to complete a mission, such as securing an IED cache. More important than your kill count is a statistic the game calls “Honor.” Players build up honor by accumulating experience, skill, and, above all, by following the rules of engagement, or ROE. Shoot a civilian, and your honor goes down. Same if you shoot a fellow player. (You also wake up behind bars in Fort Leavenworth.) You can also hurt your honor by damaging local infrastructure or using disproportionate force against the enemy. Helping an injured friend, meanwhile, boosts your honor. The game has even updated its rules since 2002 to fit the latest ROE.

If that sounds simplistic, other games simulate dilemmas soldiers are likely to face. Gator Six is a video collection of 260 different military scenarios, such as deciding whether to leave a broken-down ammo truck by the side of the road and dealing with your local interpreter. The game Full Spectrum Warrior, in which the player leads a squad through the fictional war-torn nation of Zekistan, is as much about leadership and problem-solving as killing. A smoke grenade can be more useful than a bullet. The leader doesn’t even carry a gun. In a recent article in Foreign Policy, P.W. Singer describes a new kind of game designed to help soldiers preview upcoming missions in Iraq: “Kids come out and warn of a mine, and then the player has to figure out whether to believe them. A woman screams that the Americans killed her husband, and he has to decide how to respond.”

Then there’s a whole set of games that have nothing to do with shooting. Army 360 exposes players to cultural situations, like talking to local Afghans or distinguishing between hostile gunfire and a wedding ceremony. Saving Sergeant Pabletti teaches soldiers about sexual harassment. Virtual Iraq helps veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. UrbanSim teaches troops how to navigate the more humdrum aspects of counterinsurgency, such as meeting with tribal elders and creating economic opportunity.

Some commercial games have taken cues from their more ethically sensitive counterparts. While Call of Duty doesn’t aim for realism, players are punished for friendly fire or shooting civilians. (Then again, there’s a level in Modern Warfare 2 in which you’re supposed to kill civilians.) In the gunship level described earlier, you’re ordered not to fire on the church—only on the baddies streaming out of it. These are minor aspects of the game. And rightly so: If a game wants to be considered “fun,” it probably doesn’t want to confront players with moral questions at every step. Too much realism and your game will look like this. But nods to the rules of engagement do help avoid charges that war games are nothing but bloodthirsty shoot-’em-ups.

While improvements in technology make video-game violence ever more realistic—and desensitizing—they also make the games more complex, and therefore more useful as tools for training soldiers. They’ll never be perfect, of course: The most difficult ethical dilemmas are too complex to render in 3-D, and the speed and confusion of war is impossible to reproduce on screen. But the best games can help soldiers anticipate real-world conditions. Video games are hardly to blame for the 2007 tragedy in Baghdad. But they could help to prevent the next one.

Become a fan of Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.