On the Internet, the Tank Controls You!

An online game lets you play battle-bot operator

Plastic toy soldiers might look pretty passe to kids who now dream of piloting Predator and Global Hawk drones for hours and hours on end – all while sitting hundreds of miles away. But a free online game can satisfy that itch to control something real, as opposed to mere pixels on a screen, with just a keyboard and joystick.

RCTiger is a web game that puts players in command of one of several remote-controlled tanks, all modeled on the infamous German Tiger tank that wreaked havoc on Allied armor during World War II. By contrast, most of these toy tanks spend their time blundering around miniature buildings and trees on the floor of an office building somewhere in Germany.

Novelty-seekers only need a Flash 10 player for their web browser, a decent Internet connection and the patience of a panzer commander lying in ambush. Although even the latter would probably get bored in the online queue and wander off, as recently the time spent waiting to play has increased with the demand.

The game is probably not incredibly different, in practice, from driving around your own remote-controlled car or controlling RC planes. Yet there's something eerie about the existence of RCTiger, which bills itself as "the first telepresence gaming service in the world."

After all, the U.S. military and others now actively recruit video gamers because their style of play suits modern warfare so well. P.W. Singer, author of Wired for War, writes that some of the best U.S. drone pilots honed their skills on the Xbox console. And the British Royal Air Force has also begun looking to video gamers instead of trained pilots for their drone operators.

Some experts have voiced concern that, between battlefield robots and human operators who are increasingly removed from conflict, we're on the moral brink. But then again, many human soldiers still see real benefits from robots that undertake the dirtiest, and most dangerous, jobs. For them, war seems as far removed from a game as it gets.