Four times a week, 13-year-old Evan Spencer and his buddies rush to their Xboxes to play Call of Duty, the violent, popular sniper game set in the Second World War.
While some of his friends shoot enemies long after they're down, or spray bullets indiscriminately, Evan does not. He can't - or he'll violate the Geneva Conventions his parents insist he follow, and be cut off from the game he so dearly loves.
"To remember it, it's basically common sense," says Evan, explaining the conventions while slurping a chocolate milkshake at a restaurant near the family home in Etobicoke, Ont.
"Someone surrenders and you don't just go and kill them anyways."
"I think that raises a crucial point, the fact that he's even aware of his decision," says his father, Hugh Spencer, sitting beside him.
In an era when video games, many of them violent, are the after-school pastime of choice, the decision Mr. Spencer and his wife, Helen Coxon, made to let their son play Call of Duty with an affixed moral compass is a creative twist to a battle many parents have with their kids.
Mr. Spencer's experiment garnered quite a bit of chatter on technology blogs across the country after he posted his account of it on boingboing.net.
Since then, some blog comments have called it "a great example of parenting 2.0." Others have chastised Mr. Spencer for not forcing his son to get outside and exercise instead.
"This is the 21st century and a part of the universe we live in now. They're not going to go away, and they'll overwhelm us if we surrender our morals," says Mr. Spencer, a 52-year-old museum consultant.
"I wanted to make sure he was playing on the good guys' side. And if he's not, he has to stop."
Considered to be the pillars of international human-rights law, the Geneva Conventions are a collection of four treaties mainly concerning the treatment of non-combatants and prisoners of war. The First Convention, which says soldiers must care for the sick and wounded regardless of what side they're on, can certainly be applied in Call of Duty, in which moral issues often arise, Mr. Spencer says.
Evan agrees. If he shoots one of his captured soldiers, he tends to feel bad about it. Often his friends don't.
"If there's one standing in the way, they'll just shoot them and they'll fall on the floor and they just walk by them," he says. "That doesn't feel right."
The Geneva Conventions offer ethical lessons, not only on how to treat one another in times of war, but also on how to respect peers in everyday life, Mr. Spencer adds.
When Evan first asked his parents to buy Call of Duty, Mr. Spencer and Ms. Coxon had a discussion about whether they should allow such a violent video game in the house. The Geneva rule came to Mr. Spencer overnight, he says.
"Part of it was that I wanted to discourage him from getting the game. I just thought, 'Hey, he'll never read the Geneva Conventions.' "
Instead, the youngster bolted for the computer, printed off the conventions and read them carefully. Mr. Spencer quizzed Evan to make sure he understood, then it was off to the video-game store."In a sense, I wanted to make him aware that there's a lot more about World War Two than just pointing and shooting," he says. Players can gain empathy for what it must be like to make moral choices on the battlefield.
And a real soldier on the ground has to know the Geneva Conventions or risk consequences, Mr. Spencer adds.
"Even in some ways just the issues that a game like Call of Duty raises are a lot more important. Like, 'What is the meaning of this war? Why did this war happen?' And how do we conduct ourselves in times of war?' "
Mr. Spencer also knew his son would play at his friends' houses if the game was banned at home, and he didn't want to provoke that kind of secrecy in their relationship.
While he doesn't expect Evan to clutch the rulebook in one hand and the controller in the other, Mr. Spencer does expect his son to fess up if he violates the conventions. He'll occasionally ask Evan whether he's still following the rules, and peeks at the screen when he's playing.
Evan says he has been following the conventions closely, even forgoing getting to a higher level faster in order to follow them.
He readily admits to screwing up once, when he blew up a tank so he could enter another battlefield, a move that killed a soldier unnecessarily.
"Have you done that lately?" Mr. Spencer playfully warns, raising an eyebrow at his son. The warning is met with a vigorous headshake.
Still, Evan says his friends don't know he must follow these rules in order to play. Sometimes, his buddies will shout, "Oh man! The enemy was right there! You could have shot him!"
"I'll just say, 'I don't know. I didn't feel like it!' "
"And now you can tell them why," Mr. Spencer says.
Rules of engagement
The Geneva Conventions and essential rules of international humanitarian law
People on both land and sea who do not or can no longer take part in combat are entitled to respect for their lives and for their physical and mental integrity. Such people must in all circumstances be protected and treated with humanity without favouritism.
It is forbidden to kill or wound an adversary who surrenders or who can no longer participate in combat.
It is forbidden to use weapons or methods of warfare that are likely to cause unnecessary losses or excessive suffering.
The wounded and sick must be collected and cared for by the party in conflict that has them in its power. Medical personnel, establishments, transports and equipment must also be spared.
The red cross or red crescent on a white background shows that such persons or objects must be respected.
Captured combatants, such as prisoners of war, and civilians captured by the enemy are entitled to respect for their lives, dignity and their personal, political, religious and other convictions. They must be protected against all acts of violence or reprisal and are allowed to exchange news with families and receive aid. They are also entitled to basic judicial guarantees.
Source: The International Committee of the Red Cross, https://www.icrc.org
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