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What Call of Duty gets wrong about drone strikes

Early on the morning of March 1st, according to a report by the Agence France Presse, a missile launched from an unmanned drone obliterated a vehicle in the Shabwa province of Yemen, killing three suspected militants and wounding three others. There may have been up to four civilian casualties—reports conflict. It was almost certainly a US strike. We are the only power in the tumultuous region capable of fielding aircraft that sophisticated, let alone hitting a moving target at night.

It’s impossible to know how many drone strikes we have carried out since the first was launched on November 4th, 2002. Their stealth and their questionable legality mean that much of the information regarding the US drone program has been kept classified. Certainly the number of confirmed US strikes is dwarfed by the actual number, whatever that may be.

Drone strikes are in the news every few weeks. They have become a part of our reality—not as viscerally as they have for a citizen of Yemen or Pakistan, for whom blue skies may mean good flying weather for the invisible killers, but part of it nonetheless. Drones have begun to be absorbed into our pop culture: last year’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier dealt largely with a nicely camouflaged set of questions surrounding drone ethics, and featured an allusion to Obama’s kill list, swollen to grotesque size.

Drone strikes have become a part of our reality. 

Most games still shy away from explicit portrayal of drones, perhaps sensitive to the criticism that drones render warfare too much like a video game already. The big exception is the Call of Duty series. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, released in 2007, was the first in major game to feature a drone in explicit terms. “UAV” was the first unlockable killstreak, a mid-match reward for killing three enemies without dying, though this drone was not strike-capable. It was a surveillance machine, marking enemy soldiers on your team’s minimap.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 was the first to add drone strikes to the game. The “Predator Missile” killstreak, unlocked when the player reaches five kills without dying, lets the player take control of an air-to-surface Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone—the same munition used in the targeted strike against Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric and Al Qaeda leader, along with many others. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 gives you the ability to control a Reaper drone after achieving 9 kills. Recent entries in the series are set in the future, and get into space laser nonsense, but the “Warbird” killstreak in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is described as a “remotely piloted aerial attack vehicle” in the game—a drone by any other name. In Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, the killstreak “Escort Drone” provides you with cover fire from an overhead drone, which follows you for a set amount of time. Out of all of the previous examples, this one is probably the closest to resembling the way drones actually interact with soldiers on the ground—as an invisible, lethal guardian, there in case of trouble.

But even this gives an inaccurate picture of the reality of drone strikes, because the vast majority do not happen in combat. Most occur after weeks of surveillance, to victims who have no idea what’s coming. One moment, a vehicle trundles along a road in Yemen in the early hours of the morning, carrying three possible militants. The next moment it is reduced to smoking debris.

The fact that most drone strikes happen nowhere near a warzone makes many drone operators uncomfortable with their job. In an interview with the Atlantic, one pilot described his feelings after a strike that aided US marines under fire: “You feel bad. You don’t feel worthy. I’m sitting there safe and sound, and those guys down there are in the thick of it, and I can have more impact than they can. It’s almost like I don’t feel like I deserve to be safe.” Of course, in Call of Duty, it isn’t remote technicians that fire drone strikes, it’s soldiers in the heat of battle. Specifically, it’s soldiers who have earned that Predator missile by conquering the requisite amount of foes.

Call of Duty does not tackle in any way one of the biggest critiques of drone warfare: the collateral damage that often results from targeted strikes. Recall, with appropriate horror, the US drone strike that mistakenly targeted a wedding procession. The attack killed twelve people and wounded 15 more. In a match of Modern Warfare, civilian casualties are an impossibility, for there are no civilians on the map. There isn’t even the possibility of friendly fire; your teammates are immune to the fire and fragmentation.

Why does it matter that Call of Duty gets it wrong? It is just a game, after all. Well, it matters because, as Sarah Wanenchak argues in her essay War Games and War Stories, “Simulations have power—power to shape meaning, our perceptions of ourselves and others, and our understandings of our own behaviors, as well as what behaviors are appropriate and reasonable in specific contexts.” And Call of Duty, intentionally or not, is a simulation of—as it is titled—modern warfare.

Call of Duty’s portrayal of combat as a gladiatorial race to the finish can’t exactly be called realism, but the illusion of realism is part of the draw of the series. Compare the portrayal of combat in Modern Warfare to, say, Team Fortress 2, another popular shooter. Most characters in Team Fortress 2 absorb whole clips of ammunition before they go down, and can survive multiple hits from a rocket launcher. In the Call of Duty series, often it only takes one rattle of your weapon to kill someone. In Team Fortress 2, weapons are named either vaguely, like the ”Mini-Gun,” or “Rocket-Launcher,” or comically, like the “Soda Popper” shotgun. The Modern Warfare series features handguns, shotguns and assault rifles faithfully modeled to resemble real-life firearms. They are named accordingly—the SPAS 12, the Desert Eagle, the AK-47. Part of Call of Duty’s appeal, even subconsciously, is that it looks real. That’s why it’s dangerous: because nowhere is that sense of unfairness, that severe asymmetry described by that young drone pilot.

The thing is, the kind of war the Modern Warfare series portrays is fundamentally old world. It isn’t modern at all, it’s about a standup fight between equal powers. In multiplayer, both sides have access to drone strikes. Provided he can get enough kills, an “African Militia” soldier—in the campaign, a poorly defined paramilitary group based out of Somalia—can call in a Reaper drone, same as a US Marine. Of course, the tenets of multiplayer shooter design require this equaling of the playing fields. Imagine a game where the opposing team had the ability to call in targeted, precise airstrikes and you didn’t. You would be furious—as, one imagines, the militant groups who have been the focus of America’s drone strikes certainly are. In a match-based multiplayer shooter, you simply can’t have the kind of asymmetrical warfare that has come to define the modern conflict in the Middle East. The games that we play have the power to influence how we think about the things that they portray, and Call of Duty is teaching us the wrong way to think about drones.

One of the recurring worries orbiting around the use of drones is that the digitization of warfare will make killing feel like a videogame. This has largely been an issue leveled by people who do not undertake drone strikes themselves. Operators themselves often feel a strong connection with their targets, surveilling them for hours, days or weeks prior to the strike. Drones linger in the air after attacks; pilots see in high resolution the effects of their weaponry. How interesting, then, that the only videogame explicitly featuring drone strikes looks nothing like the alien and strangely intimate reality.