The myth about clean drone warfare is slowly unraveling. Once touted by President Obama for its ability to avoid civilian casualties with “near-certainty,” the proof is in the body count 11 years, 583 drone strikes, and 502 civilian fatalities later (since drones use began in 2004). Despite overwhelming bipartisan support in Washington, it’s difficult to describe these surgical attacks as “clean,” “certain,” or even “surgical” when approximately 1 in 7 casualties are civilian.
“It concerns me deeply,” said Joseph DeLappe, multimedia artist and art professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. “The easier it is to kill without consequences to ourselves, it’s just easier to kill.”
For the past several years, DeLappe has been co-opting images of drones into his artwork—stamping them on dollar bills, infiltrating internet searches with modified drone images, and tethering himself to an over-the-shoulder drone “designed for insecurity and comfort.”
Each piece is a protest without a picket line, temporarily lifting the lid of secrecy on our country’s troubled drone policy. In his latest project—titled Killbox—DeLappe takes this subversion a step further by making the viewer complicit in a virtual drone strike. Named for the electronic box that frames the surveilled target, Killbox exploits the uneven power dynamic between attacker and victim for maximum emotional punch.
“In shooter games, you generally have kind of equal sides, and in this one you have complete power on the side of a drone pilot and a total lack of agency on the other,” said DeLappe. “It’s going be interesting to see how people react. It’s intense. It’s short.”
The beta version of Killbox offers two selections for avatars: “drone pilot” and “villager.” Drone pilots are deployed out of various airforce bases in Nevada and Arizona, while villagers inhabit actual kill-zones in Pakistan. Since it's an online game, players engage one another in real time.
As a drone pilot, the player enters the game mid-op, logging onto an interface that has notes from the previous pilot’s surveillance. Just like real drone pilots, players sit in the comfort of their own chairs while observing combatants, communicating with drone sensors, and ultimately launching a missile strike.
The opposing “villager” has little to do except look around, explore the terrain, and basically wait to die. Once everything is blown to shreds, the game is over. There might be civilian casualties if you’re not careful. Or even if you are.
“I hope it’s really troubling and uncomfortable for people,” said DeLappe, “I want them to feel like, ’Oh, I just did this, that was kind of fun. Whoa, it shouldn’t be fun.’”
It’s that feeling of pleasure followed by a secondary emotion—guilt, shame, terror—that makes a game like this one so powerful. You spent time, you made some decisions, you were invested. In the end, you have to face real emotions.
Fortunately for Killbox players, there are no long-term psychological effects of playing the game—unlike actual drone pilots (often recruited for their performance in videogames) who experience PTSD.
“It’s really intense, hard work,” said DeLappe. “[Drone pilots] will surveil an area for days before they attack. They see people and kids playing and dogs and they get attached, they’re human. … Then they’re put in a position of having to blow up things.”
It’s hard to reconcile and it’s only the beginning. According to DeLappe, unmanned drones are “just the tip of the iceberg for the automation of weapon systems.” And when easy kills have a daily quota and unknown global consequences, it’s hard not to think that we’re playing a losing game.