Drone - Predators and Prey (2011) by Harrison Heller

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Video: http://vimeo.com/22535767

Production blog: http://www.amorphousblob.org/drone/


Over the last ten years, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or “drones” have evolved from an obscure, top secret military technology, to a battlefield necessity that is fundamentally changing the face of warfare. In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Pentagon officials began to push for the rapid development and production of drones, which had received only limited use in previous decades. These officials recognized the extraordinary potential of this technology, which promised to save American lives by taking soldiers off the battlefield and provided an unprecedented amount of aerial intelligence to troops on the ground. One of the most notable of these unmanned systems, the Predator drone, was originally designed for surveillance and reconnaissance operations, but was later armed with hellfire missiles to eliminate Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan. The success of the Predator in Afghanistan led to its subsequent widespread use in Iraq and the Pakistani tribal areas and, ultimately, the development of newer drones with more devastating firepower.

The majority of U.S. drones in the Middle East are operated by pilots sitting in ground control trailers in Creech and Nellis Air Force bases in Nevada. Critics of the drone program caution that this unprecedented divide between soldier and battlefield risks producing a distancing effect that could make it too easy to go to war and kill from a distance. _This concern is compounded by the military’s active recruitment of gamers, who have demonstrated an intuitive grasp of the drone’s arcade-like control interface.  In fact, the military is working with game companies to develop interfaces that resemble current videogame controllers in order to reduce the learning curve of the technology._ In Wired for War, P.W. Singer writes, “By using video game controllers, the military can piggyback on the billions of dollars that game companies have already spent designing controllers and training up an entire generation in their use.” (Singer, p.68) Meanwhile, war-themed videogames such as the Call of Duty franchise continue to be extremely popular hits for game companies. In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, players can even assume control of a virtual predator drone_._ _In addition, the military has developed its own videogame, _America’s Army, as a recruitment tool intended to get young, mostly male, gamers interested in the idea of being a soldier. As the military adopts game-like interfaces and game designers push themselves to create more realistic war simulations, soldiers begin to look more like gamers and the line between real and virtual warfare continues to blur. In fact, according to Singer, “researchers are integrating [drone] systems into immersive virtual environments, taking the human operator of a UAV out from behind a computer and into a 3-D virtual world like Second Life, controlling as many as eight real world UAVs at the same time.” (Singer, p.69) This concept is eerily similar to Orson Scott Card’s vision of war in Ender’s Game, in which child soldiers, playing what they believe to be a war simulation, are actually orchestrating a real battle. Such a technology would represent and unprecedented fusion of real and virtual warfare.

Drone: Predators & Prey  is a five-minute film that makes use of machinima and found footage to explore some of the potential consequences of drone combat and the greater trend toward the convergence of war technology and videogaming in the U.S. military.  The main character, William Haskell, is one of the best players of American Drone Warrior, a fictional videogame developed by the U.S. Air Force to identify potential recruits in the gamer population. When the Air Force needs more drone pilots, Haskell is recruited into a unit comprised entirely of gamers. The unit is an experiment to see if American Drone Warrior’s top players are prepared for real-world drone operations. However, after a botched mission results in the death of innocent Afghan children, Haskell’s unquestioning faith in the drone program is shaken and he begins to suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. The project was inspired by an incident in May 2010 in which a U.S. predator drone, operated from Nevada, destroyed three vehicles in Afghanistan resulting in the death of 23 innocent civilians, mostly women and children. The tragedy was the result of faulty intelligence and communication failures and drew increased criticism toward drone operations in the Middle East. The story of Drone emerged from my thoughts about the potential psychological impact of this incident on the drone pilot who had pulled the trigger on the vehicles. I read several news articles about drone pilots who suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. I was intrigued by the idea that these men and women, who experience battle only through a computer screen, could still suffer a powerful form of combat stress. The job of a drone pilot seems to require a certain amount of distance from the violence on screen.  However, too much distance is dangerous and may result in the cavalier attitude toward killing represented in my film by Colonel Stevens, who encourages his unit to view drone combat as a videogame. This idea is actually articulated by real-world Army advertisements which encourage gamers to join the military if they enjoy war-themed videogames. On the other hand, too little distance can lead to overwhelming fear, anxiety and paralysis. This is exactly what happens to Haskell as he begins to think more critically about his job and the potential for error. As the distance that Haskell feels between himself and the battlefield collapses, he becomes so overwhelmed by the real impact of his actions that he is no longer able to pull the trigger and execute the mission.

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