Does "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare" violate human rights?

A clerk holds a banner during a launch event for the highly anticipated video game, "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3" at a GameStop store in Las Vegas, Nevada on Nov. 7, 2011.
Ethan Miller

ATLANTA, Ga. — Pvt. 1st Class Joseph Allen has just returned home from a Middle Eastern battlefield and has been asked by the CIA to go deep under cover with a rogue group of Russian military commanders bent on world domination.

To maintain his cover with the Russians, Allen, code name Alexi Borodin, is forced to shoot hundreds of unarmed civilians at Zakhaev Airport in Moscow with an M240 machine gun — or risk being found out.

But Allen is you and Zakhaev Airport, while a real place, is set inside the digital world of "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare," one of the highest-grossing video game series of all time.

So what do you do? Well, if you want don't want to risk your digital life, you kill them all.

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It’s a scenario that real-life human-rights groups are beginning to take issue with. The International Committee of the Red Cross is now raising concerns that such gross violations of the rules of engagement and international warfare in the digital world could ultimately be damaging to combatants in the real world.

The human-rights group is so concerned, in fact, that it made the issue one of its themes at the annual international conference of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent in Geneva earlier this month, where committee members discussed the “Virtual Violations of International Humanitarian Law” and the potential for such violations to encourage real-life war crimes.

While committee members agreed that your average gamer, asked to slaughter hundreds of opponents on digital battlefields across all platforms, should not be dragged to the Hague to be put on trial for their digital human rights violations, they did say that video-game developers should be playing a more responsible role, designing games that require players to abide by the international rules of armed conflict.

“In real life, armed forces are subject to the laws of armed conflict. Video games simulating the experience of armed forces therefore have the potential to raise awareness of the rules that those forces must comply with whenever they engage in armed conflict — this is one of the things that interests the ICRC,” the Red Cross said in a statement following the conference.

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Games like the Modern Warfare series are now reaching an unprecedented number of players, which has meant billions of dollars in revenue for the game's makers, Infinity Ward. With such huge profits, the Red Cross' strategy of engaging “in a dialogue with the video gaming industry in order to explore the place of humanitarian rules in games,” may fall on deaf (and very wealthy) ears.

Looking for ways to curb digital violence is nothing new to the gaming community. Over the last decade, legislation concerning digital violence has appeared before the US House of Representatives a number of times calling for ratings and for age-limits for some games. Those bills died in the House and in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, the Supreme Court cited video games as protected speech under the 1st Amendment.

The gaming industry, with images in their heads of Tipper Gore testifying before Congress in a campaign against hip hop, has made small efforts to regulate itself in order to preempt the need for any government legislation. Companies have been printing ratings on games — with an “M” for mature content and an “AO” for adult-only content — for years. As a result, the content of video games has remained unregulated and unchanged.

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Should the Red Cross step up its campaign against virtual violations of human rights, game developers might try and use a similar strategy. Perhaps next to the “M” could be another warning that goes something like, “Caution: Players of this game may virtually violate sections of the Geneva Convention.”

Either way, the popularity of the digital violence that drives revenue is not likely to change anytime soon, leaving profit-driven violations of international human rights in digital content as well.