I am a Pakistani child, running through a colorful vegetable patch on a bright summer day. The sky above me is impossibly blue. Through the rows of leafy fronds, I can see the village elders walk to the mosque, chatting and gesturing with their sunburned hands. Then, from the sky, I hear a siren-like whistling. I stop, looking to the elders, only to see them sprinting down the road towards the mosque in a panic. Confused, I hold my hand up to shade my eyes against the sun, and look into the sky. The whistling grows louder, keening in volume and pitch, until it deafens me and blackens the world. Then I am obliterated, destroyed by the incoming missile of an unmanned drone, piloted by a faceless operator a world away.
My heart pounds in my chest as I—the real I, sitting behind my computer monitor—look at the silent black kill screen. Seconds pass, then '80s-style terminal type begins rattling up the screen. "USAF CREECH AIRBASE 432D NEV 36.35'32" 115.40'00" JO9NV0399," it reads, before continuing to rattle off coordinates. Then the black screen blinks back to life, and I am looking at wobbly video footage, seemingly taken from overhead, of grainy monochrome blobs walking around a small village. One, set apart from the others, runs frantically down the rows of a field. The computer asks me to aim my crosshairs at this blob, and target it. "PRESS ENTER TO FIRE MISSILE," it tells me, asking me to kill myself.
And now I am a Pakistani child again, running through a vegetable patch.
The game I am playing is Kill Box, an online game and interactive installation that explores the nature of drone warfare. Created by Scotland-based game developer collective Biome, in collaboration with the U.S.-based artist and activist Joseph DeLappe, Kill Box puts players in the role of both a drone pilot and a drone target.
Kill Box is neither meant to victimize those killed in drone attacks, nor demonize their operators. According to Biome co-founder Tom De Majo, it's instead about exploring the intersection of power versus freedom. When you play as a drone operator, Kill Box gives you absolute power, but almost no freedom. In a clever subversion of the tutorials of most video games, Kill Box's drone operators have no choice but to follow simple but precise instructions on how to to move their camera, zoom in, assign targets, and eventually fire the missile—all of which eventually ends in a massacre. Your view, and your perspective, is totally fixed. Comparatively, when you play a Pakistani villager in Kill Box, you have total freedom to run through the world, exploring fields, meeting your fellow villagers, and discovering your world. Ultimately, though, none of this freedom translates to power. As a cruise missile lobbed at you from half a world away obliterates you, you are totally powerless.
What's fascinating about this contrast between power and freedom is that it makes it possible to empathize with both sides. Dying as a villager in Kill Box is undeniably tragic, but so is being a drone operator, who is ultimately little more than a cog with a conscience in an incomprehensible military apparatus, a lethal automaton. This, says De Majo, was important to Biome, which wanted to call attention to the real-life plight of drone pilots. "They experience an almost digital form PTSD, but because they never enter the combat zone, the military doesn't recognize it," he says. "It's fucked up. After every mission, they have to zoom in, and count their confirmed kills. It puts them face-to-face with the consequences of their actions, in a way no other soldier has ever had to do in the history of warfare." (This is another part of the drone pilot experience Biome recreates by subverting a common video game mechanic: in Kill Box, drone pilots enter their own high score.)
Kill Box uses an abstract art style for its graphics, which De Majo says was based upon data visualizations of drone kills, in which each death is represented as a circular blob. Likewise, in Kill Box, players either target or kill these moving dots. "When we looked at the data behind drone attacks, human deaths were almost always represented by dots," De Majo says. "For our game, we had a real yearning to bring those dots back to life, giving humanity back to the raw data." This abstract art style also allows players to divorce themselves from their preconceptions of life in a Pakistani village. By embracing a geometric graphic approach instead of a photorealistic one, "we create an environment that is universal and playful, so players can invest their own ideas or experiences into it."
Although Kill Box can be played online by downloading it here, De Majo says it is best experienced as an installation, where two players face opposite each other: one as drone pilot, the other as villager. Although the players might not realize there is a connection between the two different-looking games at first, it's always discovered in the end. "At the moment of impact, whoever is playing the villager will look up over his screen at the other player, and look for some sort of acknowledgement that there's a connection between them," he says. After all, no matter how much distance separates two people across the world, being killed by someone else is a profoundly intimate thing.
Kill Box will be officially presented at NEoN digital arts festival in November as an installation piece. You can find more information here.