Keeping it real

Dedicated to the protection of victims of armed conflicts around the world, with three Nobel Prizes to its name, the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) is the oldest and most venerated humanitarian organisation in the world. More recently, it has also become the first humanitarian organisation in the world to internally utilise video-game technology in its operations.

“You could say we are a small video-game company,” said Christian Rouffaer, the man in charge of the ICRC’s Virtual Reality Tools department, a small subsidiary of the humanitarian department focused on the development of informational videos and virtual-reality training simulations using Unreal Engine 4, the same development tool behind such games as Gears Of War 4 and Street Fighter V.

First established unofficially in 2010 as a side project — with the sample video made by Rouffaer himself using the tools in the military simulator game Arma 2 — the department first established its small office in Bangkok in 2014, where it has since produced over 100 videos used to teach rules of engagement as well as other wartime protocols regarding the treatment of prisoners. At this stage, these videos allow Red Cross staff to learn how to communicate with war victims in time of crisis.

“At the ICRC, it is not our position to take sides or to condemn violent conflicts. Rather, our job is to make sure that every party in the conflict adheres to the rules, so to speak, which in our case is the Geneva Convention,” said Rouffaer, who was at Thai Red Cross office last month.

Game engines, such as the aforementioned Unreal Engine 4, are software frameworks which allow developers to render 2D or 3D images while also combining them with various other functions, such as a physics engine (for collision detection and response). As such, game engines allow developers to create many different scenarios from the same set of graphic assets, something that allows Rouffaer’s team to produce informational videos based on a multitude of situations at very little cost and time.

“To produce a video about a bombarded hospital, for example, you would normally have to hire actors and production crews, as well as find a set that would be convincing, something that more often that not costs a great deal of our donors’ money,” said Rouffaer.

“With this technology, we can now create that same video at less than a tenth of the cost.”

But perhaps most importantly, Rouffaer believes that using computer-generated images can also work to help the ICRC maintain its position of neutrality, especially when real-world cases must be brought up, as using real pictures from real situations can give the appearance of taking sides.

“To use the same example, if we wanted to use actual images of a bombarded hospital to teach combatants about rules of engagement, it can be seen as a condemnation from the ICRC of the side that bombarded the hospital, which can make it harder for a neutral organisation like us to have dialogue with both sides.”

By using computer-generated graphics, Rouffaer and his team can display the same scenario, while taking out any identifying marks or even changing the environment of the simulation to something less recognisable, thus ensuring that the same assets — such as vehicles, faces, bodies or weapons — can be customised to fit any requirements. Furthermore, by not using real-world photos, which can also be confidential, the material created can also be used to educate the public.

“In Gaza, we can use the same videos with Hamas as we use with the Israeli forces. We’ve also used many videos in the Ukraine that are working very well. The fact that we can bring stories and case studies and discuss them openly on the table without worrying about optics or politics is very helpful.”

While currently in its infant stages, Rouffaer aims to integrate motion-capture and VR technology in an even more intimate, hands-on fashion. The first project his team is pursuing regards using VR in first-aid training.

“Usually, first-aid training takes place inside a classroom, with smiling instructors lying flat on the ground waiting for you to pick them up,” says Rouffaer.

“In real-world conflict zones, first aid often takes place in the middle of firefights, with people running around pushing and shoving each other, bullets flying everywhere. Real-world victims are often not obediently lying on the ground, they’re coughing blood on you or shouting and struggling from shock. So if you want to truly learn to do it right, it can be tough to teach without the stress.”

To that end, Rouffaer and his team aims to use a combination of motion-capture, VR and other reality-simulating technologies to create a training programme that can train Red Cross delegates in first aid while under heavy stress. These simulations can include everything from noise and dust to physical simulations of field surgeries.

“Many research papers around the world have made the conclusion that interactive media like video games can often produce physical reactions like perspiration or panic in the players, something that simple videos can’t do to the same degree. Our hope is that this technology can help create a simulation that is convincing enough, so that our delegates can remain calm in the field. Let them make all the mistakes in training, as a mistake in the field can often have dire consequences for them as well as the victim.”