Blog Post

Digital Humanities and Killer Drones

A recent post on Metalter points to a number of articles discussing how an unprecedented increase in the number of drone attacks (e.g. Predator drones) on Taliban populated territory in Pakistan since the beginning of the Obama administration is fueling anti-American sentiment among civilians. Reports vary, but it is suggested that while as few as 14 terrorist leaders have been killed in these attacks, there have been upwards of 700 civilian casualties. As David Kilkullen writes in a NYT Op-Ed, "that's a hit rate of 2 percent." Predator drones are piloted remotely by people as far away from Pakistan as Nevada, "where a few dozen kids operate the computer consoles that pilot Predator drones in Afghanistan" writes Douglas Rushkoff, whose piece is also mentioned in the posting.

What I want to think about here is the extent to which discourses about this new mode of warfare are semiotically and materially linked to modern video game culture. The title of the Metafilter post, for example, is "Death by Joystick," a term that invokes images of teen boys in front of TV screens battling aliens or Nazis or Soviet fighter pilots. Even more, in a New Yorker essay highlighted in the blog entry, journalist Jane Meyer writes that "It doesn't take as much talent or experience or training to pilot a drone as it does to pilot a real plane. The skills are much like what you need to do well in a video game." 

Douglas Rushkoff opens his article with "It's a detached way to fight a war: Use a PlayStation controller to bomb the Taliban in Afghanistan in the afternoon and the drive half-an-hour home to suburban Nevada to enjoy dinner with your family that night" and continues on to describe the interface as "a two-man console, complete with joysticks and controllers indistinguishable from the ones that ship with the latest PlayStation. (Why improve on the best a multibiliion-dollar industry already has on offer? And why retrain your troops when Sony has spent so many years doing that for you?)." He later describes the atmosphere in the ground control station (GCS):

The set-up doesn't feel much different than the playroom of a die-hard videogame enthusiast - except no one is smiling, hihg-fiving, or celebrating his hits. They speak in the cool monotone of commercial airplane pilots -

Copy that we got eyes on em...
3-0-5 rifle time of flight 15 seconds...
that's 10 seconds...
5-4-3-2-1 - and splash...

And with that, presumably, some people on the other side of the monitor were blown up. (Emphasis added)

As we can see, the video game parallels abound. And they aren't simply casual metaphors; what these authors are pointing to is a deliberate and effective connection between modes of entertainment and warfare in the 21st century. 

Long story short, the connection between video games and violence goes far beyond the communications-effects model that parents groups other interested parties have touted for so long. Video game violence has actually become the paradigm under which modern warfare is conducted. The first time I came across this question was in a December 1999 article in the now-defunct Canadian technology magazine Shift. In the article "Am I a Killer?", now-prominent technology writer Clive Thompson wrote about how first person shoot-em-up arcade games like "Area 51" - games that had an actual gun interface that you pointed at a screen to annihilate aliens and zombies and terrorists - functioned to essentially train kids how to use a gun. The article pointed out how the game play taught the players with surprisingly accuracy how to behave in combat situations and how the gun itself, often weighed down by a heavy cable and capable of "kick back", mimicked the feeling of a real gun in surprising ways. I can't find the article now so don't quote me on this, but if I remember right, it was suggested by Thompson as well as by the army personnel he interviewed that kids who played these games extensively had the marksmanship abilities of someone with a month of basic training (again, please don't quote me on this, I tried to find the article, it's seriously nowhere to be found, except in Canada).

Where the question for so long has been "Do video games make kids violent?" what's been overlooked is that beyond a predilection towards violence or aggression, many of these games are actually situating their players within realistic combat situations and thus training them how to behave and think like soldiers. And this has been successful to the extent that the armed forces now take their cues from video games in their training apparatuses and even, as the Predator program illustrates, in their actual combat.

I think it goes without saying that in the early 21st century, an equivalency between our forms of warfare and our forms of entertainment has emerged. Kids have always played at battle, but where once the connection between war and play was metaphorical at best ("Bang, bang, I shot you!", "No you didn't, you missed!") we now have a situation where there is little distinction, if any, between what our wars look like and what are games look like. At least from our end. 

Is there anything that Digital Humanities can contribute to the debate? Video game criticism, to me, seems to fall squarely within the concerns of the field and a critical eye clearly needs to be turned towards the current state of affairs. To what extent can we bring our criticism to the issues at hand? Are there ways that we can make our scholarship relevant here?


1 comment

What disturbs me, as well, are the ways in which the slippage between warplay and actual war is exploited by the military for both recruitment and general PR.  A new batch of Air Force ads have just come out, and they play on just that ambiguity.  The beginning of the ads show a fantastic environment (is that the Martian surface?  Is that space?), with high-tech surveillance and weaponry displayed (frequently from first-person-shooter perspective).  Tagline: "It's not science fiction.  It's what we do everyday." This is, of course, in addition to "America's Army," the Army's 2005 effort to use an online multiplayer game to recruit. 

The military's response to the brutal reality of war and its negative impact on recruitment numbers is to play on the overlap of entertainment and state violence, emphasizing the unreality of contemporary warfare.  In so doing, they appeal to a technically savvy masculinity that sees violence as a fun experience in which one can briefly immerse oneself, but which is nonetheless safe and untroubled.  You can always reboot, after all.

This is not actually that new.  There's a scene in the 1974 Vietnam War documentary, "Hearts and Minds," in which a former pilot laments that his training, combined with his love of video games, had encouraged him to see the death he sowed as unreal, as an achievement of technical mastery and nothing more.  (The documentary is incredibly interesting, and disturbing, and powerful--it's almost two hours long, but it is definitely worth a viewing at the site linked above.)

The whole thing is creepy, of course, and I join you in wondering to what extent the current state of criticism effectively speaks to the mering of the fantasy and reality of war.