Morally Guided Drone Strikes

If you live in rural Louisiana, and happen to suffer from a wild hog problem, you can pick up the phone and call in the Dehogaflier. Equipped with a thermal imaging camera and the ability to live-steam video while in flight, the $10,000 hog-hunting drone makes quick work out of locating the highly-destructive beasts in fields and thickets alike. The only catch is that once you find the hog, you’ll need a human equipped with a night-vision scoped rifle to actually kill it. “It would be so easy to rig [the Dehogaflier] with a gun, it’s trivial,” said electrical engineers Cy Brown and James Palmer, creators of the hog-hunter. “But a lot of people would have no sense of humor whatsoever about that sort of thing.”

Of course, the unspoken assumption behind Brown and Palmer’s quip above is that American people would have no sense of humor whatsoever about an armed drone being used on American soil. Yet move that drone over 7,600 miles and have it fly over Pakistani soil, and suddenly it’s a whole new ballgame. Not only could you arm the Dehogaflier with a gun, but you might also develop an inferiority complex comparing the $10k hog-killer to its much bigger, more expensive, and far more lethal cousins. Predator drones don’t have a rifle, they have Hellfire missiles. Their thermal-imaging cameras don’t hunt hogs, they hunt humans. But perhaps the most interesting difference between the two is that while there are clear moral quandaries with using an armed drone in America, these same moral quandaries evaporate over Arabian deserts or Pakistani mountains. Something tells me that when inhabitants of these regions see a Predator flying overhead, they too lose their sense of humor.

There is no doubt that increased concern over the use of drones is beginning to seep into certain circles of critical thought. James Bridle has been busy creating ‘Drone Shadows‘, 1:1 outlines of the mechanical death-dealers drawn on the ground. Oliva Rosane and Adam Rothstein have call for ‘Drone Fiction‘ as an attempt to understand and empathize with the characters involved with drone use. Both of these approaches attempt, as Bridle puts it, “to go beyond the fetishization of the objects themselves to understand them as avatars and prostheses of the network itself, embodiments of technology and reifications of the same desires.” And while I think fiction and shadows can do their part to reveal the drone’s role, its integration, into the network, I want to propose an entirely different direction, one that I think more acutely reveals the moral quandaries of drone use.

I want to play a game of DRONE.

Light-Rail II

Light Rail FBI(DRONE Report for Light Rail Stop: Iraqi Most Wanted– 1 target, 34 casualties. FBI Most Wanted Terrorists– 1 target, 38 casualties.)

Sonny Rae Tempest is no fan of drone warfare. “Drones bother me. …They’re machines used for killing people. They have no other purpose.”

So what did Sonny Rae do to register his discontent? He made a card game, a ‘pejorative’ card game as he calls it- DRONE. In order to play DRONE you need only a common deck of cards and the stomach to watch your fictional flyer survey the card stock terrain, launching equally fictitious missiles, in order to find pre-ordained targets disguised in the clothing of Jacks, Queens, and Kings. Uncover one of them in your pursuit, and you’ve edged closer to ‘victory’. Uncover one of the other, more plentiful, numbered cards, and you’ve just killed that many innocent victims in collateral damage. Even though Tempest made DRONE to be a two-player game, one doesn’t need the element of competition to register the deadly lesson revealed through play.

Interviewed by Kill Screen, Tempest discussed his children’s experience with DRONE: “It’s not good to see that kind of play. Even with my kids playing it, as soon as they flipped over the first card, it was, like, ‘Oh, you just killed three women,’” says Sonny. “They were like, ‘ooooh… my god.’”

On his own site, Daily Moment Art, Tempest suggests what the ultimate goal of playing DRONE should be: “Hopefully, if you’re playing with your kids, they’ll pick up on the wrongness of it all. Hopefully they’ll get that feeling in their gut that they shouldn’t be playing this game. And hopefully, so will you.”

Hold that thought for a moment, because it’s something I want to return to later. First, I want to discuss another game with ostensibly the same goals manifested through its design; Brenda Romero’s Train.

For those unfamiliar, Romero’s Train is a game about transporting Jews to Nazi extermination camps. At least, that’s what players are supposed to figure out through playing the game. Actual gameplay involves placing wooden representations of people into train cars and moving them across the board. Only at the end of the game is it directly revealed what destinations your train-cars possessed; the list reads like a page out of Holocaust history. However, even dimly aware players are bound to notice several contextual clues that all is not well in ludic-representation land. The rails are mounted on top of a window with shattered glass-panes. The rules of Train are found in a vintage Nazi typewriter displaying the dreaded double-lightning bolt symbol of the SS. Even the train cars that players cram their yellow people-pieces into look more like cattle-cars than passenger compartments. So while you may not know what Train is about until you finish it, you’ll most likely pick-up on the wrongness of it all.

Raph Koster discussed Train and suggested the only moral game-move one can make is not to play. I responded that the only moral move was to play Train, because only then could you experience its effect and place your own humanity at the center of the play experience. But then I had an interesting Twitter discussion with Brenda Romero (@br) about my take on Train.

BR Tweet 02BR Tweet 01BR Tweet 03

This got me thinking; why would I insist that one had to play Train in order to receive the full experience? I think the answer is that so many of us possess knowledge of what transpired during the Holocaust, but few of us have any sort of engagement of this topic beyond what we read in books or see in films. To really understand the moral quandaries involved, I thought you had to play through them to bring them to a personal level. Realization that your ludic-optimization strategies resulted in figurative deaths at Nazi extermination camps could be a powerful way to connect the historical to your lived experience. Romero disagreed, and the points she made were something I had not considered before.

Light Rail FBI

As I dug deeper, I realized what unites both our viewpoints was that the Holocaust, as an event and as an experience, is rooted in the historical understanding of what the Holocaust was, of what it meant as a larger piece of human history. When you look at Train, when you see the broken shards of glass and the typewriter with the SS mark, you know, at your core, what this game is about. Most of us have seen footage of the camps, of the grossly emaciated figures, looking more ghost-like than human, absently walking around as Allied soldiers opened the gates. That’s why Train encourages such a visceral response from players, why Romero would say that the only moral move in Train is to stop the system, or work within the system to break it. We know the consequences of the Holocaust. That’s why we can ‘never forget’.

Can we say the same about drone strikes? Few Americans, outside those reporters who have seen the carnage first hand or those in the military who control the actual metal beasts can claim knowledge of their terrible destructive power. We simply have no past experience to juxtapose against visuals of drones found on the internet, or displayed on television. We have no grotesque scenes to buttress our moral indignation, prompting us to not only rally against drone use, but also feel an obligation to break game systems that model drone behavior.

Would Train have the same impact if the players were living in 1943? I’m not sure. But there is something that can help us explore this issue in our present day.

What will happen if I play DRONE in public?


Coffee Shop FBI

(DRONE Report for Coffee Shop: Iraqi Most Wanted– 2 targets, 33 casualties. FBI Most Wanted Terrorists– 1 target, 33 casualties.)

While Sonny Rae Tempest’s original rules for DRONE called for two decks to be constructed, I decided to simplify somewhat and create only a single deck for my experiment. Taking the King, Queen, and Jack from the clubs and spades suits, as well as the numbered cards (excluding the ace) from the hearts and diamonds suits, I quickly put together a solo DRONE deck from my collection of former casino playing cards.

For the actual drone card itself, I used the Joker, which seemed oddly fitting considering the role jesters played in medieval Europe. I ended up covering this Joker with the iconic image, now proved to be falsification, of a drone in flight. It seemed appropriate to use an image clearly associated with the actualization of drones, even thought that image– much like our larger knowledge of the drone program itself– is a product of fantasy, of speculation.

I decided to play DRONE, in the open, at three locations: a light-rail stop, a playground, and a coffee shop. Beyond simply playing the game, I decided to also document my play experience using Vine. (For this piece, I actually turned my Vine videos into gifs.) To accompany my Vines, I took panoramic photographs of each location, mimicking the ‘panoptic’ view drones provide their controllers. By combining the view of the simulated drone with the looping video of its strike being carried out, I wanted to provide the sort of empirical understanding required to engage in questions of moral quandary with regards to drone use.

Coffee Shop Iraqi

Beyond these considerations, I also knew there were material issues to explore when playing DRONE. Matt Schneider, in a post titled ‘Playing Your Cards Right‘, pointed towards some interesting issues DRONE‘s materiality brings to the fore:

I was struck immediately by the degree to which the materiality of this game contributes to the production of meaning. …This seems to me to have a strong resonance with popular rhetoric surrounding drones. We’re told that they’re simply one more tool for the military to use, and that there’s nothing exceptional about them, an argument that ignores the fact that this type of persistent, impersonal, asymmetric warfare is radically different.

Schneider is correct to see in the use of regular playing cards a similarity to the banality embodied in actual drone use. The military would have us believe these tools are not exceptional, are not literally changing the way we conduct warfare. Playing cards carry the same sort of banality, their ubiquitous presence in so many homes and adaptability to so many games making them a perfect ’empty vessel’ in which to place our limited understanding of drones’ use in warfare.

But Schneider doesn’t stop there. He also makes a very interesting observation on what would happen if you used playing cards handed out to soldiers during the most recent Iraq war depicting the ‘Iraqi Most Wanted‘ for a game of DRONE:

Every one of these cards features the face of a member of Saddam Hussein’s government wanted by the US military, and as such, every card will appear to be a strike on the enemy, even though the majority of cards, according to the rules of DRONE, are civilians. Combining the cards of Bush’s presidency with the DRONE of Obama’s reveals a curious reinforcement of logic, wherein all targets become military targets (even when they’re not), allowing us to ignore the human costs that DRONE’s rules struggle to bring to our attention.

I found this to be an intriguing point, and decided that the ‘targets’ for my solo DRONE experience should be taken from the ‘Iraqi Most Wanted’ deck. In this way, my various DRONE games could still demonstrate the linkage between the Bush and Obama presidencies with regards to drone use and the War on Terror, but since I decided to change only the ‘target’ cards, keeping the numbered ‘civilian’ cards intact, the ‘human costs’ of my DRONE games could not be ignored, could not be masked by even the hint of validation through elimination of Iraqi targets.

The Targets

But I went even further. Since I was playing DRONE in American settings, I also included an alternate set of ‘target’ cards using six personalities from the FBI’s ‘Most Wanted Terrorist List‘. Even though drones are not currently used in an offensive capability on American soil, their increased use for other tasks is almost certainly assured in the future. Besides, our use of drones over Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and other countries sometimes results in innocent casualties, and I wanted to investigate what sort of impact would be incurred if unrestricted use of drones were to be exercised in America.

My solo deck was complete. Yet what I found by playing and recording my games of DRONE brought the moral quandary issue I sought to explore to an entirely new level.

Playground II

Playground Iraqi

(DRONE Report for Playground: Iraqi Most Wanted– 3 targets, 38 casualties. FBI Most Wanted Terrorists– 2 targets, 26 casualties.)

After the tragic events of the Boston Marathon Bombing, a Vine circulated on TV and the Internet of the first explosion, looped over and over ad infinitum. Whitney Erin Boesel and Sarah Wanenchak, on the Cyborgology website, discussed the impact of having a looped video of tragedy, the likes of which are easy to create using Vine, circulate so quickly after such an event occurs.

Boesel discussed how watching the looping explosions are akin to the “flashbacks associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.” As such, she notes,

“…if Vine has ‘a purpose’ at all, then its purpose is determined just as much- if not moreso- by how people decide to use it…Therefore, I say to you now: Think very carefully about whether tragedies belong on Vine, and about whether you should put them there.”

Vine allows us to view a tragic event over and over, and it can trigger PTSD, but only if one can link the event depicted to a real trauma. Few Americans, save those who actually operate the drones, can summon a traumatic image associated with drone strikes. By viewing DRONE Vines over and over, the hollowness of our understanding comes to the fore. Playing a game tends to disarm our filters, it abstracts our understanding. Vine takes this abstraction, utilizes the disarming of filters provided by gameplay, and prompts one to face the reality of their situation and lack of understanding.

Wanenchak discussed what a Vine video means for our ability to contextualize the looped event depicted:

“Entirely decontextualized, the experience of the small closed imagery loop is also incomprehensible divorced from its context. Deeply temporal, it is also atemporalized. There is no way to understand what’s gone before. There is no way to move beyond.

…Memory involves the incorporation and understanding of a past but also the mediation of a present and the imagination of the future. Memory is what we move through in order to get somewhere else. A vine has no past, no future. A vine is a moment without a memory.”

Thus we can see why someone would have a moral obligation, be faced with a moral quandary, to break, or stop, the gameplay of Train; our memory of the Holocaust mediates the present and allows forecasting of the future. But drone strikes have no such memory to draw upon, and the present becomes lost in a morass of hearsay and speculation exemplified in the fictitious drone image I took for the Joker. By recording DRONE games with Vine, a reversal of what Wanenchak described above occurs; we have creation of memory without a moment. You see the game, but have no event to link it to. You can only return to the Vine itself, the synchronous transition from moment to memory and back again aligned with the looping video of the ludic drone making it’s strike over and over. Your moral quandary can stem only from your lack of moments, outrage sourced in a profound absence of knowing that a card game, looped over and over, throws in your face. The moment isn’t as powerful as the memory, but it at least highlights where your memory fails.

What becomes crystal clear in playing Train finds no such clarity in DRONE. The Vine video can do nothing but give you memories devoid of moments, memories that have neither a knowable past nor an actionable future. It’s just an ever present now, in which targets and innocents alike fall under the ludic weight of a simple game. Even though I have no real event to tie to my playing of DRONE, I nonetheless understood what Sonny Rae Tempest had in mind with his design. Where lived experience failed, the feeling in my gut provided more truth than any map of strikes or report could convey with such limited knowledge.

Playground FBI

As I played DRONE at the coffee shop, playground, and light rail stop, I noted that people had some small degree of curiosity of what I was doing, but not a single person asked me what I was playing, or inquired about why I was recording it. This was most evident to me at the playground. Here I was, surrounded by dozens of children, playing a game that ludically models their potential deaths in the event of a drone strike. As a society, we don’t focus on the effects of our drone use, outside of vaguely worded statements of enhanced security and force projection. Even with the recent speech given by President Obama at the National Defense University, part of which focused on drone use, Mary Ellen O’Connell over at The New Republic noted that Obama’s stated position “will continue to support killing with drones and may have even imbedded it more deeply in U.S. policy than President Bush ever did by developing some sort of code to govern its use… [he] implicitly conceded that killing with drones beyond armed conflict zones is a use of military force without legal justification.” We still have no real idea the effect these drones possess, but our President is willing to integrate them further into our societal policy without debating the cost this integration will have on our societal morality.

I find it curious, and deeply unsettling, that a single game of DRONE provides more clarity of purpose than the thousands of words spoken by our President.

In the absence of actual truth, perhaps only ludic truth can give us the understanding necessary for moral quandary. Because, when it comes to drones, the lived truth for Americans is, so far, insufficient.

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Jeremy Antley is an independent researcher and freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon. An avid player of board games and fan of Russian history, Jeremy is currently working on a project about the immigration of Russian Old Believers to Oregon during the 1960's. His work has appeared at The New Inquiry, Gamasutra, and Cyborgology, as well as being mentioned by the PAR Report, Critical Distance, and The Atlantic. You can read more of Jeremy's thoughts and rants at

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