Game of Drones

Drone warfare is a defining factor of modern warfare with drone use massively escalating over the past decade.  The United States in particular have embraced the unmanned aircraft, with the Department of Defence spending $4.2 billion on the procurement of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in the financial year of 2010.  Drones are changing the strategic and legal nature of war as they open new possibilities, exploiting the asymmetry of powers and holes in international law. The big strategic and legal changes aside, drones are changing the way war is seen within our society.

We are growing increasingly used to seeing war through a screen, whether it is on television, YouTube, or via a games console. Viewing war through a screen has a distancing effect on the violence and reality of a conflict.  This long continuing trend is reaching new heights with the conduct of drone warfare. Not only are the non-combatants viewing war through a screen, but those conducting acts of violence are as well.

The actions required by drone pilots and gamers needed to kill their onscreen targets are becoming increasingly similar and certain video game franchises use of unmanned aircraft is creating a culture in which drone warfare can be uncritically accepted by many.

Call of Duty is an amazingly popular franchise that allows the player to act out the role of a highly trained soldier whose tasks include shooting people, knifing people, bombing people, and the odd bit of climbing. The Call of Duty games have also given players the ability to call in drone strikes and fire indiscriminately at heat signatures on a screen within the game. This ability to remotely direct a missile to a far off location is not just confined to gaming anymore; this is the reality for drone pilots and many of these drone pilots will have encountered the Call of Duty games and similar shooters.

I’m not saying that video games are causing the violence, I think that’s a slightly hysterical opinion to adopt, it’s just that Call of Duty in particular exhibits a detachment from the violence and potential civilian cost of drone strikes. ‘Spec Ops: The Line’ is a video game about war that does what Call of Duty fails to do, exhibit the horror of warfare. Dragging the player closer to the violence and producing an environment in which you are not the all-American hero indiscriminately sniping indistinguishable foreign figures through a scope.  The game in fact has an especially haunting section with the use of white phosphorus and an unmanned aircraft, bringing the virtual UAV use closer to reality than the sterilised version offered by the Call of Duty games. Spec Ops is an experience that doesn’t have you waving your nation’s flag in a mad fit of bloodlust but shows that innocent people die in war and the technologies that are celebrated in Call of Duty to indiscriminately hand out death from the skies can just as easily kill innocent people as it does the bad guys.

A joke in the latest series of Arrested Development saw Buster become a drone pilot for a short time. Buster himself assumed that he was playing a video game and ‘played’ the game for a long period of time, laughing as he fired missiles. This sort of attitude that doesn’t seem to gauge the reality of drone strikes has been shown by actual drone pilots also.  Here are some quotes from drone pilots:

“[It’s] kind of like old Atari, pretty basic, point and click”

“It’s antiseptic. It’s not as potent an emotion as being on the battlefield”

“It’s like a video game. It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it’s fucking cool”

The antiseptic nature of the point and click can be realised by anybody. Anyone that’s played Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, or Battlefield knows that you’ve committed actions on those games that you would never dream of doing in reality, but the detachment and the ‘point and click’ make it possible. Someone who would not pull the trigger on a battlefield as they see the face of one man could fire a missile into a building of people they can’t see. The last quote is especially alarming (and could have been said by Buster in Arrested Development) and reveals how the remote piloting of a drone can produce a level of empathy that is exhibited when someone causes a cool explosion that takes out a group of people in a video game.

The ability to kill from the comfort of a chair thousands of miles away is the new image of the western military, and our culture is making a game of it.