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Unmanned: a video game about the unseen horror of drone warfare

October 09,2018 17:11

The drone pilot protagonist of 2012's free indie game Unmanned is a more accurate representation of a modern soldier: a man who plays video games with his son every weekend, and who has also killed countless foreigners from a grey-walled cubicle in ...


According to mainstream video games, modern warfare is all about cyborg arms, laser shields and jarheads blowing up baddies under the guidance of recognisable character actors. However, the frenetic antics of the Call of Duty series and its ilk are behind the times. The drone pilot protagonist of 2012’s free indie game Unmanned is a more accurate representation of a modern soldier: a man who plays video games with his son every weekend, and who has also killed countless foreigners from a grey-walled cubicle in Nevada.
You play an American warrior, square of jaw and beefy of build, who works from an office out in the desert. A click of his mouse sends tons of missile plummeting from anonymous drone planes with an eerie blank space where you’d expect to see a cockpit. Beneath his grainy monitor’s crosshairs, the insurgents-planting-IED pixels are indistinguishable from the children-playing-catch pixels. He is death from above by day and suburban family man by night.
As you shave your face with tired hands, you can turn your thoughts to the death of terrorists or ponder Viking beards. In your dreams you are chased by turban-wearing men, figures in burqas and little children with big sticks. They shriek just like the sheep you count every night to drift off. In the evenings, you play fictional video games Contemporary Warfare 2 and Duty Call with your son. They involve emptying cartridges of bullets into identical nasties that pop up from behind boxes and crab-walk into your line of fire – a stark contrast to your remote-drone deck monitor, where the screen is so pixelated a shotgun is barely discernible from a shovel, and the enemies cannot shoot back.
In the vein of films Jarhead and Buffalo Soldiers, Unmanned explores the tedium of war, where triumphant bloodshed is replaced with long periods of waiting and dumb errors. There is no glory in killing strangers from a cubicle, even if your firepower borders on biblical. Piloting a drone comes with none of the camaraderie or feats of daring fetishised in blockbuster games and film.
Unmanned plays out as a series of vignettes that merge conversation options with curious mini-games, a split mechanism that comes to represent the divide in the pilot’s perception of reality. Although drone operators are at lower risk of bodily harm, the mental and emotional effects of their combat can be devastating. Studies have shown that some develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which has led to suicide in a few cases. The operations are confidential, so pilots cannot discuss them with family, keeping them isolated in their experiences. “No blood, no stain,” sings Unmanned’s drone pilot in a nightmarish karaoke driving scene.
These soldiers are unseen, but increasingly numerous, part of covert operations that span Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as areas of “active-conflict” such as Syria. As of September, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that up to 11,383 people have been killed in covert warfare efforts such as drone air-strikes since 2010. Of these, over a thousand of the deceased are believed to be innocent civilians and children.
Under Trump, drones have seen decreased regulation and increased deployment. He launched at least 161 strikes in Yemen and Somalia during his first year as president. In comparison, Barack Obama authorised around 500 drone strikes outside active conflict areas during his entire eight-year presidency. To accommodate the increased drone attacks, the Trump administration has circumvented numerous restrictions implemented by Obama.
For the foreseeable future, the US has set its scope on Libya. Concurrently, it has also loosened regulations regarding the selling and marketing of US drones to other countries, unfettered by the State Department. Allegedly, these measures will prevent China and Russia from filling the global market drone gap for interested buyers.
Specific numbers of drone-strike victims, and other details, are deftly avoided or undersold by the US government. It is maintained that revealing any pertinent data would prove advantageous to the enemy. Consequently, the true toll of drone activity on both civilians and soldiers remains obfuscated.
Tales from the drone wars tend to be absent from both fictional war tales and public discourse. But as Unmanned emphasises, there is no such thing as a bloodless war.

Games,Drones (military),Culture

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