"Isn't That Like Playing With a Cheat Code?"
Finally, the most incendiary criticism came from Unmanned, a flash game by Molleindustria where the player takes on the role of a drone sensor operator for the U.S. Air Force. Unlike Spec Ops and Black Ops II, Unmanned takes place in the present day, and focuses on the daily stresses drone crews face - long, dull hours staring at a screen, life-or-death decisions, bizarrely sanitized violence, and returning to a "normal" family life at the end of each shift. The main character of Unmanned awakes each morning from a nightmare of being chased by Afghan villagers. He shaves and drives to work, flirts with his co-worker, stalks people thousands of miles away, calls his wife while smoking a cigarette, kills a man planting an IED (or not), then chats with his jingoistic son while playing Call of Duty parodies. It's the last scene that throws the character's job into stark relief - videogames are the only time the enemy shoots back at him, a contrast to his day job, where he's never at risk of enemy fire. His son likens it to playing with cheat codes, a clever verbal flourish that asks how war changes when some combatants don't have skin in the game.
Despite these larger philosophical questions, Unmanned's focus revolves around the drone crews and their feelings. The greatest sense you get from playing the game is fatigue. It's an easy game, devoid of challenge and excitement. Shaving and driving to work are more difficult than launching missiles, which is entirely the point. Ultimately, Unmanned argues that dealing with the stresses of combat aren't what affect drone pilots, it's the dichotomy of fighting a war on Friday and fixing your son's bike on Saturday.
In reality, there's evidence that drone crews do face a high level of pressure from this new mode of warfare. A recent study by the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine found that 46 percent of Reaper and Predator pilots and 48 percent of Global Hawk sensor operators reported "high operational stress," mostly from long hours and shift changes. Only 4 percent of the pilots surveyed were considered at high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder, though one of the report's co-authors, Colonel Kent McDonald, stressed that the virtual nature of drone warfare doesn't shield pilots from the emotional cost of combat. "Killing in and of itself is difficult for any warrior to go through," he said in an interview with The Huffington Post.
Compounded by poor ergonomics and user interfaces, the environment in most drone control trailers is both uncomfortable and unintuitive. Unlike Unmanned suggests, flying a drone isn't easy - the flight instruments are confusing and badly laid out, operators monitor multiple data feeds simultaneously, and getting clearance to fire means juggling calls between a military JAG who okays it under the Rules of Engagement and the Combat Air Command Center in Qatar that makes the final call. Then, after it's done, you drive home without the military's traditional support network. "When I was a pilot," remembers Dr. Missy Cummings, a former Navy pilot and professor at MIT, "you came back from a mission, you would come back to the carrier to be with people who were doing the same thing you were doing. You were all together in it. On your own, it's harder to keep it in perspective."
However, contrary to the bleak message of Unmanned, the Air Force study found that drone crews were highly satisfied with one aspect of their job: providing air support for ground troops. These more traditional air strikes - relieving troops pinned by enemy fire or taking out mortar positions bombarding a base - have led to a weird camaraderie between combat infantry and their virtual protectors in Nevada. Drone crews sometimes receive emails from infantrymen after a strike, thanking them for their help. "They love that," Colonel McDonald told the New York Times. "They feel like they're protecting our people. They build this virtual relationship with the guys on the ground."
Regardless of their faults and the ethical dilemmas they present, the overwhelming military usefulness of drones means they're not going away. Though some reports claim that the military is starting to scale back its commitment to remote warfare in the short term, it's likely that unmanned vehicles - maybe autonomous, maybe not - will be fighting our battles for a long while to come. How we will handle that remains to be seen, but with the interactivity becoming an increasingly powerful rhetorical tool, it's likely that this is not the last time we'll see games that critique this new facet of warfare.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.