IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

No 'Call of Duty' without 'Rules of War'

Hugh Spencer wasn’t initially thrilled about the idea of his 13-year-old son playing "Call of Duty: World at War." But he relented, on one condition: His son would have to read the Geneva Conventions first. And then play by those rules.
Image: Evan Spencer
Evan Spencer, 13, had to read all four treaties of the Geneva Conventions before his dad would let him play \"Call of Duty: World at War.\" Dad hopes the exercise helped his son appreciate a bit more about the realities of war.

Evan Spencer wanted to play “Call of Duty: World at War.” So he asked his dad.

Hugh Spencer wasn’t initially thrilled about the idea of his son playing the World War II-based game. “I’ve never really enjoyed first-person shooter games,” he confesses. “They’re just not my favorite aesthetic.”

But the elder Spencer agreed to his son’s request, on one condition: Evan would have to read all four treaties from the Geneva Conventions first. And then, agree to play by those rules.

This story was posted on BoingBoing earlier this week, and it’s been picked up by the game blogs. Most commenters applaud Spencer’s novel approach. But some get downright juvenile and nasty, criticizing dad, questioning whether you can even play “Call of Duty” and abide by the Geneva Conventions — and writing mean things about his son. You know — typical Internet venom. Aimed at a 13-year-old kid.

Spencer the elder is taken aback by all the flaming. He certainly doesn’t expect his son to consult the written rules while he’s playing (he might get fragged, after all). But dad wanted his son to “be aware that there are things called rules of war.”

Spencer and his wife, Helen, have two sons: Evan and Simon, 15. Both like to game, although Simon is more of a “Final Fantasy” type. The boys have “just about every console out there,” says dad, but the games in their Toronto home are mostly E-rated, with very few teen or mature-rated titles. The “Call of Duty” conversation was the first time that “the rubber had hit the road,” says Spencer.

World War II isn’t just pixels on a screen for dad, who works as interpretive designer for museums and other public exhibitions. His uncle was a U.S. Marine in the Pacific Theater during World War II. And his grandfather fought in both world wars. Many people, he says, have been in subsequent wars, and “people are in war, right now. And it’s not a game. It’s really not a game.”

When Evan realized dad was serious about the “Call of Duty” contingency, he read up on the Geneva Conventions. After talking it over with dad, Evan eventually got his prized game.

Spencer agreed to speak with me about why he and his wife decided to institute some “rules of war” in their home; following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

How do you monitor your kids’ play? It sounds like you’re pretty familiar with the content of what your kids play. Do you play with them?

I have hopeless hand-eye coordination, I don’t play anything (laughs). One thing is that you listen very carefully. We do actually monitor what they play quite extensively. It’s not a serious monitoring and we have to trust them, but I think the fact that they actually ask us about ratings (shows) that they’re carrying through on what we’re trying to do.

You mentioned that your son is “relentlessly reasonable” and outlined his reasons for playing the game. How did he present his case?

Mother is the ultimate holder of power in the house, as anyone who’s been married longer than six months knows (laughs). He presented the merits of the game as being good as a game, in terms of interactivity. He did actually ‘fess up and say that he’d played over at a friend’s house but hadn’t played it very much. He knew that the violence wasn’t too graphic. And he said that he really liked the fact that he could play online with his friends and they got to work cooperatively, and he enjoyed that. …

I felt that I had to take this request seriously. So I looked at the game … I didn’t play it, I looked at the box at the store and thought about it, contemplated it … and said “OK, you can get it.”

What did you discuss (about the Geneva Conventions)?

Did you see anything in the game that violates the conventions? And he said, “Well, maybe the part where they shoot zombies.” …

If you go to the National World War II Museum and you see the exhibit on the Pacific Theater, it was much worse than the European Theater. There were a lot of terrible things that happened in the European Theater, too, but I think because of the difference in culture and the difference of appearance that human rights deteriorated so much. My uncle would almost never talk about it.

But I think the main thing was that I didn’t want (Evan) to go into a scenario that was clearly in violation of that, and you slaughter a bunch of prisoners. They usually don’t set up the scenarios in that way, so it was more just to have that discussion and to have that basic check.

So, he has to play by all of those rules?

Well, sort of. Whether he actually incorporates that … I don’t think he actually holds up the page, but he’s aware that there are things called “Rules of War.”

It seems to me that this is metaphorical, really. Don’t just mindlessly go in and do anything in life, but think about the rules and moral implications of your actions, even in play. Is that what you were getting at here?

Yeah. I didn’t expect him to paste the thing by the console. He’d get killed immediately, checking his notes! (Laughs.) It was more like, give it some thought, particularly because it’s based on something real.

If Evan expressed an interest in playing a game like “Grand Theft Auto” or “Mass Effect,” both games with sexuality and other mature themes, would you allow that under certain conditions?

Nope. I think "Grand Theft Auto" is stupid. And it’s so outside the realm of (Evan and Simon’s) character. I guess Helen and I are just a couple of squares, in a way.

What would you advise other parents wrestling with this whole violence-in-games issue?

You really have to take a deep breath. I think every parent has to (do) what they feel is the responsible thing. I think it has to be informed — that’s the main thing. The other thing … you’re being judged on the level of these discussions. And the more decisions you make that seem arbitrary, the less they’re going to listen.