Twitter is a hellscape, but it’s also full of a lot of very funny people running very subversive accounts answering the important questions of the day in the world of video games. For example, can you pet the dog? How come everything always gets compared to Dark Souls?
And then there’s Can You Violate The Geneva Conventions, run by the satirical leftist publication Hard Drive, which VICE Games profiled last year. That account looks at games and attempts to answer a basic question: which games let you commit some war crimes?
“The part that’s probably going to sound like a joke, but isn’t, is that the idea came to me in a dream,” Giovanni Colantonio, who writes many of the tweets for Can You Violate The Geneva Conventions. “I woke up at 5 AM one morning with the phrase ‘Can You Violate The Geneva Conventions?’ fully formed in my head. In a sort of half awake daze, I got out of bed, wrote that phrase down as a note in my phone, and fell asleep for four hours.”
Can You Violate The Geneva Conventions was, funny enough, inspired by Can You Pet The Dog. An account dedicated to wholesome content opened the door to the opposite idea.
“What would be the least wholesome thing you could do?” said Colantonio. “Probably commit war atrocities, right? It just felt like an over the top way to invert the premise of that account and show how weird, silly, and sometimes dark video games are. The side effect was that we accidentally created an educational account that gives people a legitimate history lesson.”
The first tweet from the account came during the early days of COVID-19, and did not skewer a more obvious target like Call of Duty. Instead, it set sights on Super Mario 64:
The original concept for the account had less to do with the specifics of the Geneva Conventions, international agreements meant to regulate the atrocities of war, and use that as a springboard to dunk on the evil things games let players do, on purpose or by accident. Mario dropping a baby penguin off an existential cliff is terrible, but last I checked, it’s not explicitly spelled out in the four primary treaties that make up the Geneva Conventions.
In fact, some of the account’s earliest tweets are more of the shitpost variety.
Really early into the account’s run, however, Colantonio discovered people wanted more specificity. Most people are vaguely aware of the Geneva Conventions and their aim, but how many people have actually read them and internalized out what the violations are?
“For a good few months,” he said, “I had three tabs constantly open on my computer: full text of the Geneva Conventions and both Additional Protocol I and II. I would skim them every day and just pick up more and more of the details. The learning process was really just discovering what was and what wasn’t covered. The latter is always the surprising part for me.”
Colantonio would then pick a game out of the blue, often one without much violence, and work backwards to figure out how the game managed to violate the Geneva Conventions. The result was Colantonio spending half a day trying to figure out Pac-Man’s war crimes, and it also opened the door to the account thinking more critically about gaming’s complicity with glamorizing the fancy theatrics of war and laundering American military propaganda.
“Once we were actually looking at the specific articles,” said Colantonio, “that’s when we’d say ‘Wait a minute, white phosphorus is definitely a crime’ and use Call of Duty to make a bigger satire about the real world.”
Video games are many things, but disproportionately, the medium prioritizes the player’s active participation in mass violence, often wielding guns. Part of what Can You Violate The Geneva Conventions successfully pokes at is how player agency allows for seemingly atrocious acts to be demonstrated in games with peaceful aims, but games also encourage such egregious atrocities, successfully smuggling them in the guise of entertainment. Video games frequently act as American’s public relations firm, but dang, the guns do feel real good.
While the account tends to stay in character, using the act of speaking plainly and factually as a form of humor, it often interacts with real-world events. One of the account’s most popular tweets came during the height of last year’s protests, in reaction to George Floyd’s murder.
That tweet prompted questions of whether Colantonio had interpreted the Geneva Conventions correctly, a back-and-forth reading of history the account never anticipated. It was also suggested as a topic of tweeting by none other than, yes, Can You Pet The Dog.
“The account DM’d us to point out that the use of tear gas was a war crime, so we found a game to illustrate that,” said Colantonio. “I was like ‘Thank you so much and also I pray to God that you don’t hate us for making an evil version of your cute account.'”
Like Hard Drive itself, Can You Violate The Geneva Conventions is outwardly progressive, hoping to use satire to check power. Doing so requires more nuance than one might assume by glancing through tweets about the inhuman things people can do creating levels in Super Mario Maker 2, but Colantonio stressed the seriousness with which they treat the tweets.
Colantonio pointed at a tweet about Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, referencing when Netanyahu threatened to shoot Palestinian protestors tossing rocks at Isralei soldiers.
“We never want to come off as needlessly glib to the point where it just sounds like we’re being edgelords,” he said. “We spent a lot of time really fine-tuning the wording with the writer to make sure that the intent was clear. If we’re doing our jobs right, the heinousness of what we’re highlighting should really speak for itself without us having to explicitly say ‘Uh oh, did you know this is bad!?'”
Perhaps the ultimate test, however, came recently. The past week brought the surprise re-announcement of Six Days in Fallujah, a game about one of the Iraq War’s bloodiest skirmishes, where the American military has been credibly accused of committing war crimes for using white phosphorus against Iraqi civilians. The game was dropped by its publisher in 2009, and seemed to be cancelled. It’s been rebooted for release this year, but has come under even more intense scrutiny for comments made by the game’s developers, including how the game does not need to “portray the atrocities” that have been alleged or “make a political commentary about whether or not the war itself was a good or a bad idea.”
Six Days in Fallujah is based on a real-life event with real violence and human cost, one in which the American military has never really answered for the consequences of its actions.
“Naturally, when I saw the announcement,” said Colantonio, “the first thought that came to my broken mind was ‘Well, that’s going to violate the Geneva Conventions.'”
Colantonio’s work on Can You Violate the Geneva Conventions has sent him down strange rabbit holes of information, and in this case, made him uniquely suited to think about how to handle Six Days in Fallujah. And so:
“They clearly want to tell a story of heroism, and they’re not interested in talking about the criminal acts that occurred,” said Colantonio. “That’s where the chaser tweet came from. Okay, so we can’t commit war crimes that were actually committed in the very real event the game claims to be a realistic depiction of? Sure, but just come out and say you’re making military fan fiction then. That’s ultimately what it is. That’s what most military shooters are.”
The tweets, then, became a way of explaining the game’s glossed over subtext.
Can You Violate The Geneva Conventions is good shitposting. But it’s also prompted real thinking about serious topics, and ensuring jokes punch in the right direction: up. Reactions to the account’s tweets run the spectrum, but often act as a communal way to darkly chuckle at the problematic relationship games have with military imagery and American power.
“The account is a reflection of my own personal beliefs and serves as an outlet for me to voice certain political opinions on a much bigger platform than my own,” said Colantonio. “So it hasn’t changed me in so much as it reflects me. That said, the account has certainly given me a much deeper understanding of what constitutes a war crime and how governments get away with certain things that are illegal on paper. I’m essentially a walking encyclopedia of atrocity at this point. Ever need to know anything about the Outer Space Treaty? I’m your guy.”
Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is [email protected], and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).