An elderly man shuffles with a walker. A girl in her twenties stands with a crimson scarf blowing in the wind. A businessman stuffs his hands into his pockets on his way home after work.
A drone whizzes by. It spots its target. And it fires.
This is the state of war surveillance today. It’s also a card game called Bycatch that pits three to five players in rapid-paced drone combat. Designed by Subalekha Udayasankar and the consultancy Hubbub, it provides the full gamut of intelligence, assassinations, faulty intelligence, and civilian casualties.
“The primary [inspiration] was this interactive piece about drone strikes,” Udayasankar tells Co.Design. “Less than 2% of fatalities were high-profile targets. I was fascinated by the fallibility of technology itself and the collateral damage that it facilitates, and, moreover, how we do not take the time to talk about it.”
The game’s basic premise is simple. You hold a collection of citizen cards in your hand, with the goal to keep these people safe. But when an opponent shouts, “Surveil!,” you must freeze exactly how you’re holding your hand while they reach around your cards to snap a photo. If they see an intended target–or even if they think that blurry image might be the right person–they can order a drone assassination.
It’s a play on methodology that’s purposefully wrought with errors. By any logic, most of us would never pull the trigger on the murky mugshot of someone who might very well be innocent. But as BoingBoing’s Laura Hudson points out, Bycatch tempts players with a devious point system. A civilian casualty will cost you 10 points. But killing your suspect will earn you 100 points. So the game’s mechanics actually lure you into an aggressive posture, to make every effort to get your strikes right, but not make too many apologies when you don’t.
“The project is really an exploration to see if there are alternate ways to experience subject matters that one might not have the time to read or conduct deep research [into],” Udayasankar says. And it’s a philosophy she believes can be expanded. “Interactive systems and games could have a future in facilitating critical thinking and experiencing complex ideas as people look for new ways to cultivate knowledge.”
Indeed, you needn’t look further than the 2013 indie hit Papers, Please, which challenged players to take the role of a border agent to spot phony passports coming into a country, to see how gaming can actually put you into an oddly empathetic place with sometimes oppressive systems of authority. Likewise, Bycatch forces players to ask themselves how many innocent people should have to die for every high-profile target to be killed. (And the answer is probably always a depressing “Whatever it takes to win.”)
Bycatch is available for just under $14 here.