The developers of Prison Architect, Introversion Software, recently received a letter from the British Red Cross notifying them of their game’s unauthorized use of an internationally restricted emblem, the Red Cross. Specifically, both the ambulances and paramedic equipment in Prison Architect featured the image of a small, pixelated red cross. While this studio is not the first game developer to receive such a letter, it is a relatively uncommon occurrence, leading many to question the legitimacy of the human rights organization’s surprising, but nevertheless true, claim.

Despite its widespread and commonplace use, the Red Cross is protected under the Geneva Conventions as an emblem of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Geneva Conventions are global rules of war designed primarily to protect innocent bystanders, and provide that the Red Cross may be used as a symbol of neutrality to shield the wounded and sick during armed conflicts. Specifically, Article 44 of the First 1949 Geneva Convention holds as follows:

“[T]he emblem of the Red Cross on a white ground and the words ” Red Cross ” , or ” Geneva Cross ” may not be employed, either in time of peace or in time of war, except to indicate or to protect the medical units and establishments, the personnel and material protected by the … Convention.”

Thus, the Red Cross is not a merely a trademark, but also a protected sign under international treaty. Accordingly, deceitful abuse of the Red Cross symbol may be considered a war crime.

In order to ensure universal respect for the emblem, the Geneva Conventions oblige signatories to forbid any other use of the symbol.[1] “Strictly speaking, the Red Cross does not own the emblem, it is owned by the individual states under the Geneva Convention. Law dictates that both the Red Cross and the governments have a responsibility under the convention to protect the emblem” noted a representative from the Canadian Red Cross, David Pratt. As such, many countries have directly incorporated the Geneva Conventions into national law, including the United Kingdom’s Geneva Conventions Act 1957 which makes unauthorized use of this sign an offense under British law as well as a violation of international treaties. Because the developers of Prison Architect are British residents, their misuse of the Red Cross symbol violated both national and international law.

As many have noted, the Red Cross emblem has become somewhat ubiquitous in the games marketplace, appearing in classics like Halo: Combat Evolved and Half-Life 2.  “We actually thought we were being spoofed by somebody and that this couldn’t possibly be real” noted Mark Morris and Chris Delay of Introversion Software, when discussing the letter they received. However, the Red Cross has a very real concern that dilution of their symbol could endanger the lives of war victims. “If the Red Cross emblem or similar signs are used for other purposes, no matter how beneficial or inconsequential they may seem, the special significance of the emblem will be diminished” the British Red Cross’s email stated. Moreover, the protection of this symbol benefits everyone, and not just game developers.

Whether motivated by fear of legal retribution or concern for the safety of bystanders of armed international conflicts,  the creators of Prison Architect have since begrudgingly complied with the British Red Cross’ request, changing the color of paramedic equipment crosses from red to green. And yet, while this chapter of the ongoing debate over Red Cross iconography may be settled, its occurrence makes clear that the global community is a far cry from understanding their obligations under international treaty.

Author, Ma’idah Lashani, is an Associate at Morrison / Lee. When not unraveling the mysteries of international treaties, Ma’idah focuses her legal expertise in the areas of game dev and intellectual property.