Hot Wars at Chilly Distances: The Virtual Reality of Drone Warfare

         If the past two decades have seen an increasing and often realized interest in interconnectedness across global boundaries, it's worth exploring one arena wherein a desire to physically disconnect has led to the development of controversial techniques whereby to do so. Drone warfare, or “targeted killing,” is an incredibly “cool” medium of human contact for those controlling the aircraft, but has very real consequences for the hot combatants below (McLuhan and Fiore 1967). The same generation who grew up with increasingly realistic video games through the 1990s and 2000s are now situated at command stations on US soil where they kill enemies overseas without ever being allotted the opportunity to look into a real pair of eyes. Like the features of a video game, this drone image is digital, and like in a multiplayer video game, both avatars are controlled by real people. The American player, however, is the only one who is guaranteed to finish the game. As a result, violence is now seen through the gauze of digitalness, and “from drones hovering in Pakistan to those in Modern Warfare 2, the way that war is known is becoming increasingly playful” (Wallop 2012). Having been conditioned to view the digital as unreal and lacking in corporeal consequence (we download films and music because it's not really stealing), sidestepping moral responsibility becomes easier for these soldiers, whose previous battlefields – those on the PS3 and the Xbox – look and feel nearly identical to those on their command station monitors (Royyakers and Van Est 2010, 292). This conditioning goes hand-in-hand with a narrative of technological progress wherein our ability to be “everywhere at once” has allowed us to remove all danger and fear of physical threat from the messy act of war. I propose that the moral questions that arise from the idea of making war like a video game are subsumed by the preoccupation with keeping the sons and daughters of America safe because, ultimately, what is it that the Boeing's and the Lockheed's are striving for if not the continued refinement of armor and weaponry that makes our side impervious to our opponents – or, a god mode for warfare?


The painful heat of analog wars


       In the past, in analog times, we fought battles exclusively with some manner of physical presence. The decisive impact of atomic warfare signaled a breach in the scope of what we knew was possible through the targeting of a specific geographic location with a weapon. Marshall McLuhan compares the hydrogen bomb to an “an exclamation point” which ended an “age-long sentence of manifest violence” (McLuhan 1967, 138). For McLuhan, “hot” war is no longer a desirable method of executing conflict in a time of “information” warfare. The 20th Century saw the United States engage in an array of very unsafe conflicts, and even the dropping of the hydrogen bomb required some element of physical connection to the war zone as the pilots were required to fly over enemy territory. As Ryan Vogel notes, “developments such as the crossbow, gunpowder, machine guns, tanks, airplanes, noxious gasses, nuclear bombs...irreversibly changed the landscape of warfare and required groups to reassess the laws governing armed conflict” (Vogel 2010, 103). And what it is, primarily, that these continued evolutions of weaponry allowed was distance from the heat of physical war. Strength and accuracy reduce the distance one fighting body must be away from another target body. Distance = safety. The hydrogen bomb requires that one friendly aircraft be in the physical heat of war, but the destruction that one friendly aircraft can do to the enemy makes the risk/reward incredibly favorable to those in control of the bomb.

       In discussing the idea of technological narratives, one of the prominent ongoing narratives of human progress is that of safety. The evolution of seat belts in cars, designated smoking areas, buildings made fire-proof and earthquake-proof, advanced home security – we expect progressing technology to protect us more and more. If one iteration of a device is less safe than the prior iteration, the public will not accept it, and the government supports that. To that end, the US government has set up, which is a “service in alerting the American people to unsafe, hazardous or defective products,” most of which are made by non-government-affiliated corporations (

       So we can link a narrative of human progress to an anticipation of growing physical safety. Indeed, if a military wishes to gain support of its people in a hegemonic capacity, it seems pertinent that what it first and foremost offers is the idea that the sons and daughters who will be fighting are being protected from physical violence by whatever technology is available. If we are completely safe, however, we have lost all sense of action, stimulation, and danger. The video game is a convenient way to fill that gap. What does a mother say when she witnesses her child playing a violent video game? “Well, at least they are not out getting into trouble.” Or, they are not damaging themselves in a corporeal sense. They are of sound body. In an evolved society as comparably safe as our current United States, most violence is now viewed in a strictly digital capacity, far away from the heat of death and suffering.


The virtual warrior


       A quick Google search for “video game violence” reveals a multitude of studies related to the subject, but, overwhelmingly, the researchers tend to focus on the conception that video game violence either does or does not promote desensitization or aggressive behavior in the player. What very few examine, and what is most pertinent to me, is why there is an urge to engage in violent video games in the first place. Are we attempting to tap into some innate, archaic desire to dominate and survive? I'd like to see more research on this topic, but a logical endpoint for progress of all types would be the absolute lack of need for violence. If the sales numbers for video games are any indication, there is certainly a lingering blood lust. According to, a video game sales tracking organization, the top selling game of 2011, by a margin of more than 2 million units, was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (“USA Yearly Chart”). This and other best-selling action video games place the player in war zones and construct narratives around an avatar that is inhabited by the player. The first-person perspective is important in immersion, with tag-lines that implicate the player: “In this darkest hour, are you willing to do what is necessary?”

       The United States military has not only tapped into this interest in war narratives in video games, but it has developed them itself. The PBS documentary Digital Nation explores the Army recruitment centers in Philadelphia, which were converted into “Army Experience Centers” wherein the primary experience for visiting youth is playing war simulations on Xbox systems. In the video game market, the military presence is felt in games like America's Army, which emulate action first-person-shooters such as the Call of Duty and Battlefield series of games. Through these games, youth are already being conditioned to act as if they are soldiers – to proceed through missions, to follow commands, and to kill enemies – so the Army has ingeniously tapped into the phenomenon as a means of recruiting those who already have an interest in this type of process. Drone warfare seems like the best hook for these players. Imagine the pitch: “Hey kid, how about working for the military, fighting enemies, and never, ever, ever, being shot at? How's that sound?”

       As the documentary shows, the idea of being in battle at the Nevada drone warfare compound has to be qualified by statements similar to those seen in video game marketing. It is evident that Col. William Brandt understands that the sense of disconnection can lead to the perception within these soldiers that they are not actually in a war zone, making special note to the participants that “you are in the fight.” Never has warfare acquired such distance that the combatants must be told that they are actually fighting. By way of P.W. Singer's book Wired for War, Royykers and van Est quote a drone pilot who states: “It's like a video game. It can get a little bloodthirsty. But it's fucking cool” (Royyakers and van Est 2010, 292). These virtual

warriors are engaged in a battle which they themselves cannot lose, despite the repercussions of their actions bearing immense gravity.


"Playing" God


       When the sense of physical connection is removed from acts of moral uncertainty, we often see an increased willingness to participate. The world of digital downloading is a pertinent example, as it has allowed millions of otherwise straight-laced, law-adherent Americans, including myself, to become thieves in the eyes of the law. The difficulty we face arises from the question: where do we locate the victim of a digital download? Like video games, we tend to see these things as “play,” and, in a sense, unreal. But we can look to Ian Bogost for a definition of 'play' that expands upon the concept of video games, digital realms, and physical spaces. Bogost notes that “the association of video games with leisure is not a necessary condition. It is, rather, a by-product of a misunderstanding of the nature of 'play.'” He goes on to note that “play is the free space of movement within a more rigid structure,” using the example of a steering wheel's slight play before it shifts the car more violently to either side. But Bogost also notes that this play is linked to a specific set of rules which “makes it possible in the first place” (Bogost 2008, 120). In the world of video games, the specific set of rules are built into the code, and the gamer must discover what these rules are. In a role-playing game, I might run to the edges of a map to discover how rigidly linear the game world is, which gives me a better sense of what the developers have given me to work with. This is the “possibility space” of the game (120).

       According to Bogost, even the playground where children create games has a possibility space, so we must ask the question: what is the “possibility space” of war, and who has designed the space? In an article on the moral quandary of drone warfare, Murtaza Hussain notes: “Protocol I of the Geneva Convention clearly states that there is a legal requirement to accept the surrender of an individual who expresses the intent to surrender himself. Such a person is literally considered “outside of combat” and thus even if he is a combatant at the point where he surrenders he is as illegitimate a target as any other civilian” (Hussain 2012). Drone warfare does not allow for surrender. But, as the military might argue (possibly by way of McLuhan!), the medium has changed, and the Geneva Conventions have not adapted to the new environment. What has happened is this: our progress with technology has unlocked the god mode of warfare. Wikipedia defines “God mode” as the following: “in health based video games, god mode is a game mechanic or cheat that prevents a playing character from being harmed, sustaining, and ultimately, dying.” We can deduce, going back to Bogost, that it is defined as a cheat because it violates the “play” rules of the possibility space, allowing the player to ignore the system that the designers intended. If the Geneva Convention treaties represent the possibility space, then drone warfare is a cheat. As difficult as it is to justify the acts of drone warfare by old conventions, the moral question runs into the brick wall of our “progress of safety” narrative, which has been fed to us through the media for countless decades. The dangerous proposition is, then: with a complete lack of danger, are we not more inclined to incite war?


In conclusion, "Despair"


       To sum up, drone warfare offers a cognitively surreal space between the digitality of video game violence and the hyper-reality of war zone violence. It offers the glory of victory while mitigating the cost of defeat. It places in the hands of American youth the ability to engage in violent acts without being anywhere near the violence – an experience not dissimilar from playing a video game. The geographic space of drone warfare is comparable to the geographic space of a digital download, which we have come to understand as lacking a victim. And in the realm of our narratives of technological advancement, it can most certainly be described as “progress.”

       I remember playing a Macintosh game in the mid-1990s called “Despair.” The tagline: “What is it like to be a jealous god?” On a black-and-white screen, a labyrinthine maze is traversed by blissfully unaware human stick figures. The goal is simple: pick a weapon and wreak havoc upon the world of these stick figures; watch them run and explode and burn. The simple brutality, blunt (and knowing) title, and stark black-and-white of this game has stuck with me through the years. Drone warfare feels like “Despair” – and despair – to me. On a digital screen, a young man or woman clicks a button, and six thousand miles away, a device made of steel, fuel, and explosives falls through the sky towards a fuzzy phantom on his or her monitor. That fuzzy phantom will explode into a mess of pixels as the bomb detonates, but that soldier will, within the course of their normal working day, turn off the monitor and stop playing. In the mind of the “player,” where do those pixels go when the screen is turned off? Do they go to the same place that the pixels of Call of Duty go once the console is powered down? It seems they exist behind a gauzy digital screen, the same place that the violence of the world exists after having been screened away from viewers of the national news in their bloodless war coverage.

       Like the god mode in videogames, what is then most offensive about drone warfare is asymmetry, which is defended by Bradley Stawser, a fellow at the Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership in Annapolis, Maryland, who notes that, “I share the kind of gut feeling that there's something odd about that. But I don't see the ethical problem. What matters to me is whether the cause itself is justified” (Carroll 2012). Stawser is clearly making a claim for the progress of safety narrative – why should we not use the technology that has allowed us to acquire further and further degrees of safety?

       Royakkers and van Est, while highly critical of drone warfare, offer that “an appropriate solution needs to “strike a proper balance between emotional and moral attachment and detachment” through “ethical design of computer systems.” The term “ethical design of computer systems” seems like a contradiction to me, as a computer system is inherently ethic-less. What ethics it has are programmed by creators, and if those creators are resorting to emotional punishment as a means to balance something, clearly they feel that the act itself has a naturally unbalanced quality. If they're the ones programming the ethics, then what we have is simply justification. We like to think that digital file sharing is a “victimless” crime, but there is, somewhere, someone whose job is no longer around because of file sharing. And there is someone in Afghanistan or Iraq who is no longer alive because a soldier pushed a button in Nevada, then drove home safely. Never before has war been this chilly and distant, and never before have we been safer.




Bogost, Ian. “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” in The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Edited by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 117-

140. doi: 10.1162/dmal.9780262693646.117


Carroll, Rory. 2012. “The philosopher making the moral case for drones” in The Guardian. Accessed August 29th, 2012.


Digital Nation. DVD. Directed by Rachel Dretzin. 2010; PBS.


Hussain, Murtaza. 2012. “Is drone war moral?” Salon, August 2012. Accessed August 28th, 2012.


McLuhan, Marshall and Fiore, Quentin. 1967. The medium is the massage: An Inventory of Effects. California: Ginko Press.


Royakkers, Lamber and van Est, Rinie. 2010. “The cubicle warrior: the marionette of digitized warfare.” Ethics Inf Technol 12:289-296. Accessed August 28th, 2012. doi: 10.1007/s10676-010-9240-8. “USA Yearly Chart.”


Vogel, Ryan J. 2010. “Drone Warfare and the Law of Armed Conflict.” Denver Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2011.


Wallop, Althea Vail. 2012. “When Virtual Reality Becomes Simply Reality” in Intersect: The Stanford Journal of Science, Technology, and Society, Vol. 5. Stanford University. Accessed August 24th, 2012.


Wikipedia contributors, "God mode," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed August 30th, 2012).


Created and Maintained by Stephen Russell, 2013