How the Prison Architect developers broke the Geneva Conventions

When Mark Morris and Chris Delay of Introversion Software began working on Prison Architect, they knew it was a game that would stir controversy. They never expected, however, that a simulator about the incarceration of cute, blobby humans had the potential to make them criminals themselves. Their crime? Displaying a tiny, five-pixel wide red cross on the hood of the ambulances and backpacks of paramedics. It might sound laughable, but it just so happens that those five pixels arranged just so are an internationally protected symbol.

Days before Christmas, Delay and Morris received a concerning 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," it reads. "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."

Delay and Morris didn't know it, but for years they had been breaking the law—a very serious sounding one at that. "We actually thought we were being spoofed by somebody and that this couldn't possibly be real," Delay tells me. But, to their amusement (and anger), it was.

Delay and Morris, like many of us, had made a common mistake. "In my mind that the red cross is the universal symbol for health packs and health add-ons—anything to do with healing in videogames," Delay says. "I'm sure there are red crosses on Doom health packs from 20 years ago." And while he's right about Doom, he was wrong about the red cross. 

That tiny little red cross on the hood of the ambulance is where Delay and Morris went wrong.

More than just a health pack 

See, the red cross doesn't belong to the public domain. It's the protected emblem of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), an organization that dates back to the 1863. The ICRC was critical in establishing human rights during wartime as laid out in the Geneva Conventions that 196 countries have since agreed to abide by. For the average person, these conventions are usually understood as "don't harm prisoners, the wounded, and the people who are just trying to help them." For the ICRC and its various child-organizations around the world, that mission is a lot more complicated—especially when it comes to their emblem.

"The reason for this strict control is that the red cross emblem is an internationally agreed symbol of protection during armed conflicts," the email continues. "It is used to safeguard the wounded and sick and those who seek to help them in a totally neutral and impartial way, and can save lives."

Originally, laws prohibiting the misuse of the red cross emblem were used to prevent armed forces from exploiting it to gain a tactical advantage. In 2008, one such instance occurred when Colombian intelligence forces posed as members of the Red Cross to save political prisoners who had been held for years by FARC rebels. Doing so is a war crime. But is there really no difference between a tiny red cross on a videogame ambulance and one used to misrepresent military personnel in combat?

"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 email reads. "The red cross emblem or similar designs are not general signs of ambulances, health care, first aid, the nursing or medical profession, or similar matters. Moreover, they are not signs to be used for commercial purposes, such as for advertising campaigns or on products." 

Health packs in Halo: Combat Evolved used the red cross but were changed to a red 'H' for Halo 2.

Yet the use of the red cross for just those reasons is common. A Google search for 'health pack' returns dozens of results for everything from Doom to Halo. Outside of videogames, it appears in comic books, movies, and even theater. With misuse of the symbol so apparently widespread, Delay tells me he was a bit upset to find that Prison Architect had been one instance where the hammer would fall.

"Red crosses are such a minor five-pixel wide symbol in Prison Architect," he argues. "There's one on the ambulance and one on the back of a health pack. They are so tiny. I think it's ridiculous. It's not like we had these enormous red crosses everywhere on the sides of vans in war zones. It's this miniscule pixelated red cross you can barely make out."

But Introversion Software isn't the first developer to draw the attention of a Red Cross organization, either. In 2006, the David Pratt of the Canadian Red Cross sent a letter to a law firm representing several game developers urging them to stop using the symbol in their games. "Our philosophy is that there's no emblem abuse that's too small to report, because you have to try to get them all, which is a practically impossible task—but one thing we saw with the videogames industry is that it has a huge reach, especially with young people," Pratt said in an interview with Shacknews. "It may create an impression that the red cross emblem is part of the public domain."

On the surface, this sounds like a typical case of enforcing the misuse of a trademark—the kind that videogames have been dealing with for decades. Except that the Red Cross isn't a business where misuse of their logo might result in financial harm. According to an article published by the Canadian Red Cross, it's that misuse of the emblem could lead to physical harm. 

The red cross appeared in Doom but was later changed with the re-release to a red pill..

The real issue, at least where Delay and Morris live, seems to have more serious consequences than just being sued. In the United Kingdom, the provisions of the Geneva Conventions were incorporated into British law in 1957. Prison Architect's misuse of the emblem wasn't just breaking the Geneva Conventions (which feels kind of like some distant bogeyman), but the laws of their own country. That's why, upon getting the email, they were quick to comply. Boot up Prison Architect and call in some paramedics, and you'll no longer see that red cross. Now it's green. Delay tells me the change took seconds to make in Photoshop. "It's not worth taking the stand," Morris says. "You have to pick your battles." 

Drawing the line 

While both developers recognize that the red cross can be an important symbol in the right context, they can't help but raise their eyebrows at the fact that a charitable organization is spending its donated resources to cracking down on indie game developers.

"Lots of people donate money and the assumption is that that money is going to treating [people in need] and it turns out that a portion of that money is going to lawyers writing letters to videogame companies who are apparently abusing use of the red cross symbol," Morris says. "How much money do they spend every year enforcing their abuse of the red cross emblem? We are one videogame out of thousands, so many of which use that emblem to indicate health. Do they just cherry pick the odd person to approach? In which case, it would feel like a complete waste of time to spend any money at all, if you're not going to enforce it consistently. If they were spending large amounts of money to persistently and consistently enforce ownership of their red cross around the world in industries that are completely unrelated, is that a legitimate use of money for a charitable organization?"

Is the supposed dilution of the red cross' important meaning really of such importance? Internet activist, journalist, and author Cory Doctorow doesn't think so. "Is there any question that the use of red crosses to denote health packs in games will bring even the most minute quantum of harm to the Red Cross?" he wrote in a blog post criticizing Pratt's letter. Doctorow reached out to the Canadian Red Cross for comment and they appear to not have responded. 

Medics in Half-Life 2 also bear the red cross.

On a broader spectrum, various Red Cross organizations have come under scrutiny for how they choose to spend their money and the lack of disclosure that can sometimes go along with it. While there's no denying that the mission of the Red Cross is noble, how efficiently it goes about it is contentious. "When you're a charity, you need to talk about these things I think," Morris says. "People donate, and I really believe that you have an obligation to tell people where the money is spent."

For Morris, who tells me he's donated to the British Red Cross, the situation has an interesting wrinkle: Some tiny sliver of his own charitable givings has fueled the action taken against him. "I'm not saying I'm going to stop, but until I get some kind of understanding of how much of my money they're using to pursue infringement claims, I'm starting to think, maybe they've got a little bit more money than they need?"

For a game that has a history of spawning thought-provoking discussions, this latest development was never intended, but Morris and Delay see it as just another day at the office. "This is just the latest fascinating twist and turn. That's what's really interesting about it, Prison Architect gets people talking," Delay says. Now that the issue is settled, both developers are relatively good-humored about the experience.

"I think of myself giving an after dinner speech on my 70th birthday and talking about everything I've achieved in my life, and one of them will be my war criminal status," Morris jokes.

"That's not exactly a list you want to be on," Delay fires back.

But, among their jokes, one question still needs an answer: Is a little red cross really worth the trouble?

We've reached out to the British Red Cross for comment and will update this story should they reply.