This Game May Help Us Understand the Mental Health Toll of Being a Drone Pilot

Kill Box has ambitions that many players will find disturbing — it aims to put them in the shoes of both a Pakistani child and the U.S. drone pilot responsible for killing them. In doing so, its creators hope to draw attention to the mental health consequences of flying drone missions.

Fast Company spoke with Tom De Majo, co-founder of Biome, the studio responsible for Kill Box. De Majo explained one of Biome’s reasons for creating such an upsetting game.

Dying as a villager in Kill Box is undeniably tragic, but so is being a drone operator, who is ultimately little more than a cog with a conscience in an incomprehensible military apparatus, a lethal automaton. This, says De Majo, was important to Biome, which wanted to call attention to the real-life plight of drone pilots. “They experience an almost digital form PTSD, but because they never enter the combat zone, the military doesn’t recognize it,” he says. “It’s f*cked up. After every mission, they have to zoom in, and count their confirmed kills. It puts them face-to-face with the consequences of their actions, in a way no other soldier has ever had to do in the history of warfare.” (This is another part of the drone pilot experience Biome recreates by subverting a common video game mechanic: in Kill Box, drone pilots enter their own high score.)

 
Rolling Stone shared the impact of the drone program on a few former pilots who were to speak about it earlier this year. Though research has found that drone pilots experience mental health issues at the same rate as manned aircraft pilots, some still doubt that drone piloting can be as stressful, given the distance — but there’s no doubt that the coping mechanisms the pilots describe are unhealthy at best.

“The job wore you down,” Haas says. “There were limits as to how much you could fly in a week and in a month, but nobody got to keep within those limits. Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, it didn’t matter to us because we were technically in a theater of war. Everybody was tired and out of shape because the crazy schedule completely messed up our sleep cycles.”

Haas’ means of coping became increasingly destructive. “It was a pretty f*cked up time,” he says. In addition to a heavy consumption of alcohol, he took to sniffing bath salts before, after and even during shifts. He also discovered that if he drank enough during his downtime he would be too intoxicated to be called into work. “There was a lot of coke, speed and that sort of thing,” he says. “Everyone drank. We used to call alcohol drone fuel because it kept the program going. If the higher ups knew, then they didn’t say anything, but I’m pretty sure they must have known. It was everywhere.”

 
Along with drug and alcohol abuse, the pilots describe insomnia, nightmares, and PTSD — and a system that seems uninterested in even acknowledging any potential culpability.

So Kill Box aims to show players how uncomfortable it can be to experience even a simulation of a drone pilot’s job — and how horrifying it can be to be the victim of even a virtual drone strike.

[Fast Company]