Droning On

Ben Eaton, a digital artist, and Kevin Macnish, from the University of Leeds, are exploring the ethics of contemporary warfare using game platforms.

Picture: Charles McCain, Creative Commons

Unmanned vehicles (drones) are rapidly becoming a regular feature of battle spaces, especially in the air.  In the last four years the US has massively increased its use of drones in warfare in and around Afghanistan and Yemen.  The UK recently announced its decision to double the size of its force from 5 to 10 drones.

The use of drones is attractive to those operating them.  When a drone is hit and downed no pilot or navigator is killed.  A lost drone is far cheaper than a lost aeroplane, not to mention the loss of expensively-trained pilots and navigators.  However, the ethical issues surrounding drones only begin there.  Drones are typically operated from a great distance by servicemen and women who get to go home at the end of each day.  Given their distance from the combat, are these servicemen and women at risk of treating their work like a computer game?  Certainly the screens interfacing with the drones closely resemble computer games, but is this because the interface tries to depersonalise the experience, or because games try to emulate the drone interfaces?  Drones also offer greater visibility of battle zones in high definition, bringing home to the operator the effects of a successful strike in far greater detail than has previously been available to those operating missiles or flying aircraft.  This could lead to more engagement with their targets rather than less.

At the same time, those targeted by drones suffer disproportionately.  With no means to defend themselves or fight back they can feel rendered impotent by the use of drones against them.  How will this affect their willingness to accept peace when the drones leave?  Furthermore, what does it say of a country that will enter a war but not risk the lives of its soldiers in fighting that war?

These are only a few of the ethical issues that arise around drone warfare, and do not begin to touch on questions of automation nor on the domestic use of drones for law enforcement.  Through developing a mod for an online role-playing game, we (Ben Eaton and Kevin Macnish) hope to create a scenario for players to engage with some of these ethical challenges.  Whether that be in the design of a drone or its operation we have yet to decide, but there is plenty of potential to develop scenarios using high quality gaming environments that will be engaging and, we hope, challenging.

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