Friday, September 14, 2012

If You Die In The Game, You Die For Real

Probably the most-maligned weapon in the United States' current military arsenal is the drone, the pilotless plane that flies over a target area and, on the instruction of a person controlling it remotely, rains death from above. The controller, meanwhile, is never in any physical danger.

Which is basically the meat of the controversy: the drone is seen as unsporting. The perception is that someone can just fly in a robot and kill whoever without even the possibility of repercussions. Which isn't the point of a military conflict- everyone wants things to be as unfair a playing field in their favor as possible- but it runs up against ethical concerns. It especially stings when the drone takes out innocents. People who had nothing to do with what's going on around them get killed and their homes blasted to bits without even the opportunity to defend themselves, or know anything about why this is happening beyond 'the Americans put that thing in the sky'. It's unfair.

And it's not an unprecedented gripe. The idea of a theoretical sporting chance is persistent throughout history. The comparison we're going to go with, though, involves hunting season. In 2004, a hunter from Texas named John Lockwood offered the idea of online hunting. You go to a web site, load up a live feed, and when a deer comes around, you move your mouse pointer to the deer, click, and bang. The now-dead deer would be shipped to your house. For an additional fee, you could also have someone strip it for you.

And as gun-happy as America is, nobody was up for it. States quickly moved to ban online hunting before it even got a foothold... including Texas. Safari Club International- which deals in trophy hunting and has been hit with the occasional allegation of poaching- joined in the fight against it. Why? It wasn't fair. That wasn't, as they viewed it, real, honorable hunting. You can load up with the most ridiculously overpowered arsenal in order to bring down Bambi, and that's fine... but they expect you to actually go out there, find your prey, and shoot it in person. Nobody really expects a deer to have a chance in hell against the hunter even if it did decide to fight back, but it at least has that option. The hunter is at least in some sort of theoretical danger, if little actual danger. It's a joke of a sporting chance, but it's enough to be comfortable with.

Retranslated back into a warzone scenario, this would be comparable to the drone versus, say, a fighter jet. There's still no chance in hell of a village on the ground actually fighting back, but, well, maybe someone has an RPG they can fire. Maybe there's some sort of mechanical problem with the jet. Maybe the pilot comes in too low. There's that element of theoretical danger.  That doesn't exist with a drone. A drone is America just dropping out of the sky and doing whatever they want. What is this, a video game or something?

Not quite.

As a lifelong gamer, I have dealt with the video-game comparison repeatedly over the years. The undying perception- and it still isn't dead; look at any given report about someone in the United States who goes on a shooting rampage and see how often the news story on it mentions whether or not videogames were found in their house- is that someone who plays videogames becomes unable to discern the game from reality. That suddenly one day they're going to decide everything is a demon spawn from another dimension and massacre their way to a high score. (Which, who uses a high score these days outside of the social-media realm?) You never see that perception with, say, Tetris, or Mario. You see very few people these days who believe their fellow man is going to shoot bouncing balls of flame at turtles.

You should give gamers that much credit. They can discern the difference between what's on the screen and what's real. ...well, maybe ITV can't. Games may look realistic, but you ultimately know it's just a game. Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson, for example, found this out when he did a segment in which he took a Honda NSX around the Laguna Seca track in Gran Turismo 4, and then tried to beat his time in real life with the same car and same track. He couldn't do it. The reason for that was, ultimately, he knew that if he crashed in Gran Turismo, he could just reset and try again, and thus he felt comfortable taking risks. But he knew that was not the case on the actual track, and that knowledge made him too cautious and risk-averse to launch a serious assault on his Gran Turismo time.

Of course, for a drone operator, there is no difference. What's on the screen IS what's real. And they're well aware of it. They may not physically be present, but piloting the drone and aiming the gun requires getting a close, up-front view of the area. Which means the operator sees exactly what havoc they are wreaking, in real life, when they push the button. In fact, they see more than some of the soldiers actually out in the field. (Think about it: what kind of viewpoint does a sniper have? They're nowhere near the action. That's the whole idea of a sniper.) A survey conducted last year showed that nearly half of drone pilots exhibit what was referred to as 'high operational stress', about 10% higher than Air Force logistics and support staff. (Pilots of manned Air Force planes weren't tested.)

When I typed in 'drone operator' in Google, the fourth AutoComplete result I got was 'drone operators ptsd', which is something about 4% of operators are at high risk of (compared to the 12-14% rate of those on the ground, but 4% is still 4%). The first result for that was this Wired article from June by David Axe on that precise topic: the relationship between a pilot and their drone, and how much culpability they internalize for any mayhem that results when the button gets pushed. David also explores the possibility that maybe a little stress is a good thing in this case: while too much stress will result in PTSD- and nobody wants that- too much detachment from what they see on the screen- or too much culpability transferred to the drone- could result in more possibility for unnecessary mayhem. You know. Like a videogamer would cause.

Granted, no gamer credits the controller when they win, and few blame it when they lose. And either way, nobody buys it.

No comments: