I wonder if the makers of Unmanned watched the same episode of Frontline that I did last year. It was an episode called “Digital Nation” that attempted to grapple with a very ambitious but important question: How is the human race changing through its relationship to and growing dependence on digital technology?
The show covered a lot of ground, from the role of computers in the public education system to the problem of video game addiction among South Korean youth. One of the most interesting segments looked at the military's use of unmanned drones and the life of the Air Force pilots who control them. Almost like any other white- or blue-collar citizen, many of these pilots depart from their suburban homes in the morning and drive across the Nevada desert to work. Only their work consists of hunting down and firing missiles on suspected insurgents halfway across the globe. They even dress in flight suits, in part to reinforce the gravity and reality of their duties. But in actually their butts never even get off the ground.
The episode was sobering, and it also brought me back to thinking about the "Collateral Murder" video that had been posted on WikiLeaks the previous year (which itself was eerily reminiscent of a particular mission I had played in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2). Anyway, I ended up writing this short little story on my other blog (oh yeah, I've got another blog that preceded this one). It was sort of a brief, raw exercise in imagining the lives of three people—the first being a suburban-dwelling drone pilot—and their relationship to digital violence.
Unmanned uses the mechanics of a point-and-click computer game to examine a very similar subject: a day in the life of another such imagined drone pilot. Every activity, from shaving and driving to dropping bombs on terrorists, plays out like a short mini-game. Whether mundane or stress-inducing, they all present their little challenges, and as demonstrated through the man's own inner monologue and personal introspection, they're interconnected. His cognitive mind gives equal weight and meaning to each moment.
This would all be very interesting in and of itself, but the game goes a step further by displaying the action in parallel windows. As the player attempts to steer a car in a straight line on one screen, she or he must simultaneously cycle through a multiple-choice thought tree in the other. While guiding a drone on one screen, the player must carefully navigate a flirtatious conversation in the other. The implied anxiety of each moment becomes manifest through the mechanics of play. Turns out, it's neither easy nor comfortable trying to concentrate properly on two competing demands.
Unmanned is not so much a simulation or adventure game as it is an interactive metaphor for cognitive dissonance, the psychological discomfort that results when one's feelings or beliefs are at seeming conflict or opposition with one another. How does a married family man cope with his desire for his attractive coworker? How does one feel pride and honor for defeating an enemy in a way that perhaps feels dishonorable or even cowardly? What happens when all of these stresses are intermingling as a part of one’s daily routine?
What I like about Unmanned is it doesn't judge the imagined subject, at least not directly. There are different ways for the player character to think through his situation, and none of them are presented as definitive. Even if he muses about the satisfaction of killing terrorists during his morning shave, it's not apparent whether or not this is the man's genuine sentiment or a bit of coping sarcasm. It may be both.
In its swift 10 minutes or less of playing time, the game packs a wallop. It's as much a creative statement about American foreign policy and the war on terror as it is an examination of modern video games and the gamification of everyday living. It's about—dare I say—the human condition! One could argue the game is noncommittal, but I would strongly disagree. It's a game that deals in real politics without stooping toward the overtly ideological. It juggles questions of morality without resorting to didacticism. It also has a keen sense of irony, and the title of the game is brilliantly appropriate.
I'm glad there are developers such as molleindustria who are using games to tackle these kinds of issues. We don't have to be actual drone pilots—or fathers or husbands or even men—to understand what it's like to be at a moral or emotional stalemate. But good storytelling can help place us in these hyperreal situations and in turn reveal new truths or ideas not only about ourselves but the absurd world around us. Films and literary fiction have long served this purpose. Video games . . . not so much, and that's okay. But Unmanned gives me reason to believe that games can and will rise to that very challenge.
Unmanned won the Grand Jury Prize at IndieCade 2012. You can download or play it online for free.
(EDITOR'S UPDATE: I just came across some essential reading to add to this post. It's a Kotaku column by Paolo Perdercini, the very man who brought us Unmanned. In addition to clarifying the actual main source of inspiration for the game—it was actually the book Wired For War by P.W. Singer—he offers a very compelling argument for why we should be wary of the kind of black operations being seemingly glorified in the latest Call of Duty game. It makes for a great companion piece to the game. I'm left even more impressed at the ideological restraint with which Perdercini managed to approach the subject of remote warfare in his game.)