Playing as a child, I roam the outskirts of my village, skipping near my relatives working in the fields, past cows in their pastures, beneath the shade of an ancient wall. Life is a blaze of color and possibilities. But in less than one minute, I'll be dead.
As a drone pilot, far above, I click on a confirmed enemy target inside a farmhouse. The user interface locks on automatically. I try to ignore the tiny human shapes moving about on the fringes of my screen. I execute my mission.
The AI wants to be absolutely certain that the target has been eliminated. I send in a second strike. The AI asks that I estimate number of killed. I type in the number "1," knowing that this is an absurdly hopeful calculation.
Kill Box is a two-player game in the sense that each player takes on the role of both the doomed child and the drone pilot, one after the other. It's primarily designed as a short installation piece to be played in public. But it can also be played online with another person, or as a single player, taking on one role and then the other. The whole thing takes less than five minutes.
Created by a Dundee, Scotland-based team called Biome Collective, it's been exhibited around the world in beta form, but will not be completed until its official debut at the NEoN digital arts festival in November.
Kill Box — named for the three-dimensional volumetric coordinate space used by drone warriors — is a political video game that seeks to highlight the moral implications of waging war from afar.
Kill Box seeks to highlight the moral implications of waging war from afar.
Since 2004, the United States has made use of drone strikes in attempts to kill enemies based in Northern Pakistan and elsewhere. Estimates to the number of killed vary wildly. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates up to 966 civilians killed since 2004 in Pakistan alone, including as many as 207 children. Official U.S. figures claim that 116 civilians have been killed in the last six years from U.S. drone strikes outside Iraq and Afghanistan.
"When people first play it, without hearing about it beforehand, they often assume that the other person has the same point of view as them," says Tom deMajo, one of the game's designers. "Then, when the missile strikes, there's a connection that happens. It's a really effective installation, a crowd puller. People will watch and talk about it and discuss it."
DeMajo, who is developing the game along with Joseph DeLappe, Mal Abbas and Albert Elwin, says it often affects players deeply. "We've had people being upset and distressed. We've seen people crying. Some people thank us," he says.
There are also those who don't understand the game. "Some people are disappointed that, as the child character, they can't react or kill anyone," DeMajo says. "But most leave in a state of contemplation."
DeMajo says he is against the U.S. policy of drone strikes, but wants to create a game that encourages players to make up their own minds.
"Remote warfare is only going to become more prevalent as technology is used more and more," he says. "AI war and robotic war is not that far away. It's important for people to engage in the debate.
"But it's not our job to tell you how to feel. It's not our job to give you an opinion. We're pointing out that this is a situation that exists. I'm interested in people being aware of it, and then questioning it."
The drone pilot has lots of power but no freedom.
Players take on the role of the child and the pilot, requiring them to experience the world from both perspectives. The effect is startling.
As the child, the player must confront the death of an innocent person who has no knowledge of the wider conflict. And although the pilot is an adult, who has made certain choices to be in this place and doing this job, he or she is also a victim of the unfolding tragedy. "The child has lots of freedom, but no power. The drone pilot has lots of power but no freedom. They are part of a team and they are required to follow orders and protocols," says DeMajo.
"We want to avoid casting the villager as a good person and the soldier as a bad person," he adds. "It's not about who is a goody and who is a baddie. It's about the infrastructure that they exist within. It's not so much about us as individuals; it's about the world that we inhabit. It's too easy to lash out and blame individuals instead of looking at the cultural, structural challenges that we all face."
"We want to develop a sense of empathy and understanding of what it might be like to be in either context," says co-developer Joe DeLappe. "It's a visceral experience that can drive home the absurd nature of drone warfare, the moral implications that are raised.
"One of the most rewarding things we hear is when people say, ‘This is not a fun game.' That's great. That's what we want. We want people thinking about these issues. How that leads to action and change is another discussion."
Perhaps the most affecting moment in the short game is being forced to estimate of number of people killed. Biome based its drone pilot view of the world on publicly available drone footage, usually released as propaganda. The footage is often fuzzy. Modern drone pilots use more advanced cameras, and are required to remain over their targets for long periods in order to make detailed reports.
This dynamic is a nod to how video games portray wars, says DeMajo. "If you play games, you're accustomed to having a score. We're flipping that on its head by making you score yourself. We also wanted to use it to acknowledge what you've done. By putting in a particular number you reveal more about yourself than you might want to. If you put in '50' maybe you're approaching the game from the wrong place."
I think back to my own estimate of '1,' which was clearly an attempt to claim a wholly successful mission without any innocent lives lost, even though I had already played as the child.
This kind of self-deception could factor in how large sections of the public view drone warfare, preferring to focus on its key benefit of avoiding deployment of troops while turning a blind eye to its innocent victims. In a 2015 study, Pew Research found that 58 percent of Americans approved of the policy of drone strikes.
DeMajo says the team is still discussing ways to bring the game to the public outside arts festivals and live events. But he acknowledges that it is an unusual game, one that might not sit comfortably alongside other video games about modern warfare:
"A lot of games are blatantly about war, but they'll be in a made-up place in order to create enough of a disconnect for people to play and not think about the fact that this is based on people killing each other in the real world.
"But Kill Box is about an actual experience that is actually happening right now. It draws uncomfortable parallels between technologically mediated warfare and computer games. It's about being disconnected by technology and distance."
Kill Box is a troubling reminder of a war that targets individuals who are avowed enemies of liberal democracy, but which also costs the lives of innocents, including children.
Its function is partly to protest this means of war, but mainly to require that the player weighs his or her own judgments about drone warfare's consequences, its alternatives and its cost.
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