Unmanned is the latest release from the Italian game designers Molleindustria, who aim to ‘free video games from the dictatorship of entertainment’. Their other productions include Phone Story, ‘an educational game about the dark side of your favourite smart phone’: you have to use armed guards to threaten Coltan miners in central Africa to increase their productivity and catch suicidal Chinese factory workers in giant nets. It isn’t available from the iPhone app store.
Unmanned, rendered in blocky, lo-fi graphics, examines a day in the life of a disaffected suburban drone pilot. You wake from a strange dream, shave, and drive to work through the Nevada desert, where you fly your drone and flirt with your co-pilot. You decide whether or not to kill a terrorist before taking a break to call your wife and smoke a cigarette. After work you go home and play shoot ’em ups with your Ritalin-addled son. Along the way you are awarded medals for ‘outstanding introspection’ or ‘legion of karaoke commendation’. The gameplay is numbingly repetitive: shaving, driving, smoking and blowing up suspected terrorists are all conducted by taps or mouse-clicks on a split screen.
So far, so alienating. But Molleindustria’s satire is lagging behind reality: the US army’s Air Education and Training Command announced in 2010 that it was developing a ‘Predator/Reaper simulation’ – a video game – ‘to encourage recruits to consider the RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) career field’.
There’s no need to join the army to experience the thrills of the RPA revolution. Now you can build a drone of your own from an online kit. Last year protestors in Poland launched a DIY quadcopter to spy on riot police. In the Financial Times last month Francis Fukuyama announced that he ‘had to have my own drone after hearing about the US army’s RQ-11 Raven, made by a company called AeroVironment’:
The technology is not standing still. Down the road are insect-sized drones that could be mistaken for a housefly or spider, which could slip in under a door-sill to record conversations, take photos or even inject a lethal toxin into an unsuspecting victim… Further into the future are nanobots, particle-sized robots that could enter people’s blood streams or lungs.
Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania meanwhile have designed drones that can imitate the swarm behaviour of birds or insects, and play the James Bond theme while they’re at it.
But RPA operatives are keen to stress that they at least don’t treat their jobs flippantly. In an interview in Der Spiegel a drone pilot said:
Killing someone with an RPA is not different than with an F-15. It’s easy to think that, to fall down that trap. We’re well aware that if you push that button somebody can go away. It’s not a video game. You take it very seriously. It’s by far nowhere near a video game.