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Games that use a red cross to denote health violate the Geneva Conventions

Chances are, you’ve seen a health pack in a video game depicted as a little red cross on a white background. It’s a recognizable symbol, one that for many universally denotes health, but it’s also not legally supposed to be there.

In an interview with PC Gamer, Introversion Software, the studio behind the PC hit Prison Architect, detailed a rather peculiar experience.

In late December, the studio received an email from the British Red Cross: “My immediate reason for writing is that it has been brought to our attention that in your game ‘Prison Architect’ a red cross emblem is displayed on vehicles. Those responsible may be unaware that use of the red cross emblem is restricted under the Geneva Conventions for the Protection of War Victims of 12 August 1949, and that unauthorised use of this sign in the United Kingdom is an offence under the Geneva Conventions Act 1957.”

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Yes, according to the British Red Cross, Prison Architect‘s use of a red cross to denote health violates the Geneva Conventions. The little red cross is actually the emblem of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), not part of the public domain. The committee played an integral role in the framework of the Geneva Conventions — a statute that applies in wartime conflict to ensure human rights are not violated. 196 countries are ethically bound by the Geneva Conventions, which means that virtually every video game released that uses the emblem is in violation of the agreement.

It’s not just independent titles like Prison Architect that have violated the conventions, though. The emblem has been used as the symbol for health packs for decades. Franchises of AAA-caliber — Halo, Half-Life, Doom, and Fallout, to name a few — have included representations of the emblem.

Kotaku pointed out that the Halo franchise has gradually transitioned away from the emblem, replacing the cross with an ‘H’ in recent entries. Additionally, the Doom franchise switched from the emblem to a red pill to denote health packs.

This is the first time a video game studio has been contacted about the emblem’s use in a game, so it appears that the ICRC has not been particularly stringent on making sure its emblem doesn’t appear in games until now.