I participated in the “Eyes in the Skies” Symposium at UC Davis this week, which looked at drones from a variety of perspectives. I had the good fortune to provide a short commentary on Joseph DeLappe’s new game project, Killbox. I’m grateful for the organizers who invited me, and for the opportunity to have a conversation about this work in progress!
The text of my response is below. Apologies for the slips in address and formality – I was aiming for a more conversational tone, speaking both to the artist and audience.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about death in gaming, and specifically the ways in which mechanics support particular regimes of dying and killing through simulation and, especially, fun. Games are interlocking systems of rules, representation, and technological constraint, and they can produce quite interesting training effects when honed in a particular way.
Killbox offers us an entry in the genre of “serious games” that put fun in the service of learning, which frequently means, to some gamers, taking the fun out entirely. It’s a bit different than DeLappe’s other works, which have tended to use existing games as platforms for disruption and dismantling. My first question for discussion is to ask what it means to make a transition into game design from disruptive performance. Of course, the lines between performance and production are blurry, but it seems that game design very literally speaks to a different type of audience than the unsuspecting multiplayer hordes in America’s Army, for example, or any number of your other performance platforms. Killbox seems to me to represent a real shift in gamic intervention, and one that has very different connections to power and privilege. I’m thinking here both of game design as a privileged form of expression that is only recently undergoing a democratizing renaissance, but also of the privilege of the gamers who become enraged when their fun is interrupted with cold, hard reality.
While dead-in-iraq and other performances trolled users hoping to have simple fun with their friends, Killbox is designated as not fun from the outset. There is no surprise or nonconsensual depth here, in the way there was for the gamers engaging in America’s Army – in many ways, the depth of Killbox is right on the surface. Even DeLappe’s sculptural pieces on gaming culture, like Taliban Hands and The Terrorist Other, have a whimsical quality to them – daring gamers to confront their larger-than-life fantasies in physical form – so I was a bit surprised at the darker tone in this piece. I was also surprised at the minimal controls of the drone pilot: in other drone simulators, the game is in chasing down the target and experiencing a sense of satisfaction after achieving the objective. Here, however, the actions are automatic and meaningless.
It was only when I switched to Player 2 that I discovered the whimsy. Killbox’s playfulness takes place on the ground, in the colorful sandbox of the drone’s target. It seemed designed for someone who has been conditioned for decades to respond to the simple joys of particle effects and gamic chimes. Having experienced Player 1’s narrative first, I was aware of the ominous hum in the background, but the gamer in me really pushed to collect all of those white dots. Becoming the drone’s victim enacted, on the one hand, the fabled capacity of games to induce sympathy and identification with a different subject position. The hum gave me a sense of dread, but I wanted to live my life anyway. Inevitably, the missile fell. It didn’t kill me at first. I ran. And then I died.
Then something kind of unexpected happened. I found a new way to play. I tried, and failed, over and over again, to give my avatar enough distance from the blast to survive, strategically collecting tokens before the first strike so that I might position her closer to a reasonable exit. In one playthrough, I used my clairvoyance to run as far away from the complex as possible. I still died, well out of reach of the blast radius – so much for precision targeting. Another time, I stood at ground zero and still survived until the second missile. I don’t want to pass these off as design oversights, because this is what gamers do when confronted with a system: they explore its most implausible boundaries. This cycle made me repeat, and even welcome, the avatar’s death. Dying, not killing, became the irresistible game, particularly when juxtaposed against the pilot’s programmed indifference.
I really enjoyed the phrase “the complicity of play” in DeLappe’s description of Taliban Hands, but in Killbox I find that complicity not in the drone pilot’s killbox (since all intentionality is stripped in that mechanic), but in Player 2’s deathbox. I didn’t feel complicit at all in firing the missiles. I didn’t even seem to have the password to the machine. I was, however, complicit in forcing a drone victim to relive the last day of her life over and over again, in a twisted Groundhog Day with the same tragic result. And I enjoyed it. In my generous moments, I felt that I was helping her live her last day to the fullest, with maximum point accumulation before darkness fell. This makes me think of Priya <Satia>’s earlier comments about the difference between intimacy and empathy – and this is something that game designers and proponents of serious game design often fail to recognize: simulation and roleplay do not necessarily result in an empathetic relationship with the Other.
This all causes me not a little bit of shame and embarrassment, perhaps more than other drone simulators that turn shooting pixel people into a game. We have grown accustomed to understanding and even playing with drones as an interface that gamifies war. Killbox shakes this up a bit, gamifying life and death at the point of impact.