Two players playing each side of Killbox. Image: Killbox

In This Game You Play a Drone Pilot, Then a Drone Target

Edwin Evans-Thirlwell

'Killbox' sets out to explore the anxieties and inhumanity of drone warfare.

Two players playing each side of Killbox. Image: Killbox

The great lie about drone warfare is that it's war without the messy human element. As former US drone operator Lieutenant-Colonel Bruce Black explained in 2013, it takes 175 people to execute an "unmanned" Predator patrol, from engineers to the pilots who commonly work 12 hour days, seven days a week. These teams certainly aren't infallible, and while they're spared the discomforts of a battlefield, pilots may still pay a psychological price, including a sense of cowardice about firing missiles from the safety of an office, and resentment at being dismissed as "video game warriors" by other pilots.

A collaboration between Scottish digital artists and University of Nevada techno-activist professor Joseph DeLappe, Killbox is among the few video games to grapple with these anxieties. Slated for release as both an online app and an installation, it sets out to capture the uncanniness of piloting a drone—physically removed from a target, yet able to monitor their activities in detail via mechanisms that compare to those of the games we play for entertainment.

How do you reconcile yourself with killing on a screen, when you're used to doing it for fun?

"Drone warfare is a really strange space," comments lead designer Tom deMajo. "It bends legal boundaries, definitely territorial boundaries, but also psychological boundaries as well. How do you reconcile yourself with killing on a screen, when you're used to doing it for fun?"

The game view when played as the pilot. Screenshot: Killbox

Killbox is a game of two halves. On the one hand you can play as a drone pilot, tasked with launching a strike on a rural area in Waziristan, just over the border from Afghanistan. The game's 3D environment is highly abstract, dotted with geometrical white buildings and crops that jut rigidly from textureless soil. The idea is at once to strip the setting of cultural signifiers that may trigger a player's prejudices, and to show how artificial the world may feel when viewed through a circling camera. A stream of heads-up display elements—coordinates, range-finding information, half-comprehensible radio chatter—also work to keep the player at an emotional remove.

"We want people to forget they're playing a game about drones, until they play the game from the other side."

Whatever destructive power you wield, your options in this side of the game are limited: Wait for the military apparatus to tell you to fire, then fire. A second later, buildings puff apart soundlessly. A second missile is automatically loaded and you're ordered to fire again, ending the game for all participants. "The pilot side of the game is purposefully super-simple, super regimented," says deMajo. "It's a very basic feedback loop of 'do this, well done, do that, well done.'"

A target is destroyed, from the drone pilot player's view. Image: Killbox

"We create a ladder of action and response, where going up a rung becomes routine," he continues. "So when it comes to pulling the trigger, it's just part of that sequence. And we've done that to reflect the experience of being part of the machine, not to [make personal comments] about any pilot—it's the system, the distribution of responsibility. By creating an environment that's structured in that way, we want to show players that it's very easy to go along with it."

The view when playing as a target. The dot is a target. Screenshot: Killbox

The other side of the simulation casts you as a person in the target area, represented as a moving dot. The landscape is the same, but the experience is much more playful, more "gamey." You're able to roam the world, brushing up against other dots to trigger musical notes in a visual metaphor for social interaction. At least till the bombs start to fall. "All the dots are people," explains deMajo. "We want to reclaim the data visualisation of people who've been killed, which is always represented by a little dot."

A target is destroyed, from the target's point of view. Screenshot: Killbox

A work-in-progress, Killbox could do more to represent the long-term effects of drone warfare on both operator and subject population, harrowingly recounted in this column for the Guardian. Unlike the celebrated Papers, Please from Lucas Pope, which enacts the plight of a customs officer swamped in police bureaucracy, Killbox is something of a fire-and-forget sim that focuses a little too narrowly on the act itself.

In comparison to the that is a drone strike in Call of Duty, however, it's a fascinating artwork that exposes the parallel between war game and the gamification of war. "We want people to forget they're playing a game about drones, until they play the game from the other side," concludes deMajo. "You see two people playing, and you see one of them jump when it happens. They make the link that they've done something to someone."