Real Guns, Virtual Guns And Me

Graphic: Jim Cooke

Sometimes I imagine my brain is a collection of baskets that contain everything I know. There's a basket for the English language, and a basket for music stuff. There's one for Lord of the Rings lore, and another for Bloodborne monsters. Right alongside those is a worn but sizeable basket that contains all my accumulated knowledge of guns.

The gun basket has been around for as long as almost any of the other ones. It's how I know the difference between an UMP-45 and an Uzi, what an extended mag looks like, how hollow-point rounds work, and the difference between a clip and a magazine. It contains scattered knowledge of different types of body armour, door-breaching tactics, and what it looks like when a high-calibre round penetrates a human skull from medium range. Sometimes I sit and look at it. I reflect on why it exists, and how it got to be so full.

1. Hamburgers

I grew up fascinated by guns, though my family never owned one. Guns were all around me; in the entertainment I consumed, and in the toys I saw at my friends' houses. I didn't think about why I was so drawn to guns; I simply was.

As an adult, I'm knowledgeable about firearms to a degree that frequently clashes with how I feel about them in the real world. I don't want a gun in my home, but I can differentiate between 5.56mm and .30-06 ammunition on sight. I think America's gun laws are ludicrously lax, and yet I can confidently tell you the difference between an ACOG and a reflex sight. I get nervous when I'm in the airport and see soldiers with assault rifles, but I can probably tell you what kind of rifles they're holding.

I know about a lot of gun stuff in part because of the movies and TV shows I watch, but mainly because of the video games I play. So many of my favourite games are called "shooters", that loaded term that seems so pejorative any time it's printed in a mainstream newspaper or magazine. I spend hundreds of hours each year playing first- and third-person shooters, online and competitive shooters, single-player shooters, and role-playing games where you do a lot of shooting. Games such as Far Cry, Doom, Mass Effect and Destiny.

Some of the games I play involve wielding fantastical, ridiculous weapons - guns that shoot magical poison darts, guns that scream annoying phrases, or guns that shoot dubstep. Others involve using licensed, photorealistic recreations of actual weapons of war. I don't like all of the shooters I play, and the older I get, the fewer of them I like. But I do still play a lot of them.

Being an American means spending every day under a shroud of gun-inflicted cultural trauma. Being an American who plays video games often means spending one's downtime in a virtual space where people gleefully shoot one another without a second thought. There is a natural tension between those two experiences, a tension millions of us reconcile every day. Most of the time we don't even think about it. Being a human being - American, gamer or otherwise - means spending every day navigating the tensions between all sorts of conflicting systems and ideologies. Even the most tenuous balancing acts can become unconscious.

I think of how I nod along with my vegan or vegetarian friends when they explain the morality behind their dietary choice. I consider the affection I feel toward my girlfriend's dog, a lovable little dope who would probably lose an IQ comparison with any random pig pulled off the line at a factory farm. I imagine a far-flung future where my nieces' children ask me, "Uncle Kirk, did people seriously used to eat meat? Like, they'd kill and consume living, intelligent animals? And everyone was just OK with that?"

But, God help me, I still like hamburgers. They're delicious. My taste for meat and my taste for virtual violence both involve an intellectual compromise that mostly dissipates when it comes time to like what I like. I know the analogy isn't perfect, but the compromises I make feel similar. If I sit at my desk and think about eating animals, it seems wrong, but when I'm out for dinner ordering a ribeye, I can live with it. When I consider the fact that the majority of my free time is spent shooting virtual guns, it seems weird. When I'm merrily landing headshots in a video game, I care a lot less.

2. Close to Head-Level

"You need to be able to get to the point that just naturally, when you sight in with a sniper rifle, you have a good spatial awareness and understanding of where someone's head is going to be," says my instructor. I'm not at a firing range, and my instructor isn't actually standing next to me. I'm watching an impressive gamer who goes by True Vanguard as he explains how to get better at shooting people in a video game. He speaks with the casual, clinical confidence of an expert marksman. When it comes to video games, he is one.

A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to get better with a sniper rifle in the first-person shooter Destiny. In Destiny, sniper rifles were a high-skill weapon that, if you could use them properly, would allow you to kill your enemies, at range, faster than any other weapon. True Vanguard was an absolute beast with a sniper rifle, and the more I played competitive Destiny, the more I wanted to shoot like him.

Video: True Vanguard

"You need to be able to, when you initially sight in, to be relatively close to head-level so that the amount of adjustment you need to do for your target acquisition when someone comes into your sight-picture is minimal," True Vanguard continues. He speaks with the confident drawl of a gun range instructor, casually dropping marksmanship terms such as "target acquisition" and "sight picture".

I'm listening carefully while marvelling at the amazing headshots he keeps nailing in the video that's playing behind his lesson. It's a little distracting, actually. I want to focus on his instructions, because I want to get better, but I keep focusing on how absurdly good he is at this game.

For a moment, I reflect on what I'm actually doing, and what he's actually teaching. He's telling me how to make sure I put my sight on my enemy's head, so that the bullet I fire will hit him there. He's giving me helpful tips to be better at virtually killing people.

And here's the thing: It feels really good to virtually kill other players - or robots, or aliens, or whatever - in Destiny! All of the guns in Destiny and its sequel feel great to use, to the point that "gun feel" is one of the most oft-cited reasons people like playing the games. There's this satisfying "donk" that sounds when you land a headshot with a sniper rifle, accompanied by the brief rush of adrenaline that follows pulling off such a skilful feat. Fusion rifles charge and pop, shotguns emit a violent bark, and revolver-like hand cannons slam out their payload with violent precision. At its best, Destiny makes me feel like I'm dancing through a chaotic firefight, perfectly landing shots like an acrobatic action star. It's a thrilling feeling that I willingly pursue, in Destiny and in many other games.

3. Some Kind of a Talisman

"The way that guns are represented in media is kind of like, they're some kind of a talisman, right? You shoot somebody, and they just fall down. And that's not really how things work in the real world." That's Mike (not his real name), an old friend of mine who works in law enforcement as a firearms instructor. Decades ago, Mike and I used to trade turns shooting Nazis in Wolfenstein 3D on our primary school classroom PC. These days he works with real guns for his day job and has been training people in their use for years.

"That's one of the things that, in training, they try to get through to you," Mike told me as we caught up over the phone last week. "That [guns] aren't just, you shoot somebody and they fall down and everything's over. It's not like the movies, and it's not like video games. The video game representation of guns is very much like a weird sort of long-distance version of tag. Whether it's in the hand, or the chest, or the head or whatever, you get the damage level up to a certain point and that person falls down and you win. And I don't think that that's in any way, shape or form a fair representation of how firearms work."

"I don't think a lot of people understand what the aftermath [is]," he said, as one example of how media portrayals of guns differ from the real thing. "If you've never worked in medicine, and you've never seen a gunshot wound, or seen the consequence of something like that, I don't think that is very well-represented anywhere."

Mike said he gets that it wouldn't be in the interests of most games or movies to show the bloody aftermath of a gunfight, but that "once you've actually seen the consequences of some of this stuff... It's tough, carrying this weight - of the gun, and dealing with all of that stuff on a day to day basis. You have to be very careful. So the amount of care and effort that you have to exert in real life versus just how insanely cavalier you can be with a gun in a video game... You know, you're running behind somebody in a video game, and you've got a gun pointed right at their back. But it doesn't matter, right? Because you don't have friendly fire turned on."

Wolfenstein 3D

Before Mike got into law enforcement, he'd never owned or used a gun. His family never had a gun. He told me most of his early impressions of guns came from movies and TV, as opposed to video games. "You and I, we started back in like, the 486 days, right? Where it was like, Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. So you know, my perception of stuff like that, it was weird, because Wolfenstein 3D, it was almost abstract art. This sort of looks like a gun, these sort of look like people, [but] it was very pixelated." He said he thinks that nowadays, people are probably learning a lot more about guns from video games, particularly as the guns in games become more closely modelled on relatively recent weapons.

Mike said he likes games such as Ubisoft's loot-shooter The Division, which is set in a near-photorealistic Manhattan and features detailed and realistic gun models, but that he finds them so dramatically removed from the actual experience of using a gun that he doesn't feel like he needs to reconcile the two experiences. "It certainly doesn't affect me on a day-to-day basis," he said. "To me, it's the equivalent of being a doctor and watching Grey's Anatomy."

In The Division, he offered as an example, your character spends the game running around the city wearing full body armour while carrying thousands of rounds of ammunition. "It is physically impossible for you to carry that much ammunition around with you, right?" he said, laughing. "That's incredibly heavy! It doesn't get into the fact that your body armour weighs like 30 pounds [14kg]. And the weight dispersion is all off. So you could lie down and maybe not be able to get back up!"

I asked Mike if the Destiny sniper training videos I'd watched would give me an edge if I were to try to learn to use a real gun. He said that while some of the terms might carry over, that was about as far as it would go. "I mean, there's so many more variables in real life that you have to deal with," he said. "In the video game, it's like, OK, I just gotta get these two things lined up, and then I click. In the real world - OK, are my arms tired? What's the recoil of this gun going to be? How are you pulling the trigger? Are you pulling the trigger too quickly? How are you holding your gun? Is there too much pressure?"

He equated the process to learning to drive a car from a book. "You could read about driving a car. Here's the rules of driving a car. Here's the rules of the road. But I would not suggest that somebody who had just read the Driver's Ed manual would then be somebody that I would just hand a driver's licence to and be like, 'OK, go do what you want. Now you're able to drive.'"

4. Phoenix Force

Like Mike, I encountered fictional guns well before I played my first video game. I grew up in rural Indiana, where hunting was an ordinary weekend activity and gun ownership was commonplace. Despite that, I wasn't allowed much interaction with firearms. Every summer at camp I'd shoot a .22 at the rifle range, but that was about as far as my experience went. My parents also discouraged me from "playing guns" with my friends. I wasn't allowed to watch violent movies or TV shows, and our family didn't own any gaming consoles. I was forbidden from owning any store-bought toy guns - my friends all had cool water guns, dart guns and plain toy gun-guns, but my folks weren't into it. We eventually reached a compromise: Under my dad's supervision, I was allowed to carve a toy rifle out of wood.

How strange it seems, all these years later, that I would have wanted a toy gun so badly that I was willing to carve one out of a block of wood! At the time, it didn't seem strange at all. Despite my parents' best efforts, guns were all around me; in movies, on TV, in comic books and on the playground. Guns were sewn into the fabric of my childhood to such an extent that I never stopped to consider my relationship with them. My friends all had toy guns, and if I wanted to play guns, I needed one too. It was that simple.

A couple of years after I stopped playing with toys, I stumbled upon a cornucopia of turbo-charged gun culture on the racks of the young adult section at our town's public library. I was browsing the stacks and discovered the Phoenix Force series, a collection of novels published in the 1980s by a multitude of authors writing under the pen name Gar Wilson.

Each volume was a slim paperback that told a spectacularly violent story of a team of international badarses, basically an R-rated A-Team. The team's members were identified in large part by the weapons they used. Over and over the books would repeat the names and characteristics of each soldier's firearms, almost like a mantra: Commander David McCarter used an Ingram MAC-10 and carried a Browning Hi-Power pistol. David Manning preferred a FN-FAL rifle and a Desert Eagle .357 magnum. Calvin James used an M-16 fitted with an M203 grenade launcher. Cuban commando Rafael Encizo had his own particular preferences:

In addition to the grenade launcher, Encizo carried a 9mm Parabellum Walther MPL submachine gun and a Smith & Wesson Model 59 autoloading pistol in a hip holster. The Cuban had finally accepted the fact that his .380-calibre Walther PPK was not suitable for many combat situations, but he still carried the compact, double-action automatic in a shoulder holster as a backup piece.

That's an excerpt from Phoenix in Flames, which was originally published in 1984. It was the first Phoenix Force book that 12-year-old me happened upon, eight or nine years later. I read those exotic brand names with fascination: M203 Grenade launcher. FN-FAL. Desert Eagle .357 Magnum. Beretta 92SB. Inspired by the books, I began writing my own little adventure thrillers, loaded with stalwart heroes, faceless villains and buzzing parabellum death.

I recently tracked down a used copy of Phoenix in Flames on Amazon. Re-reading it as an adult, I can't get over how clumsily-written it is, and how much of it reads like creepy gun propaganda. It reads like equal parts Reagan-era military fantasy (the narrator regularly refers to enemy soldiers as "jackals" and "trash"), high-calibre violence porn, and Guns 'n Ammo advertorial. Every paragraph is peppered with military jargon, all "parabellum" this and "7.76mm" that. Almost every page of the book contains at least one mention of a gun's make and model. "Hahn switched the H&K pistol to his left hand and drew the Walther P-5 from his shoulder leather." "Manning's hand closed on the barrel of a Soviet-made AK-47 assault rifle." "A 3-round burst of 5.56mm slugs blasted into the side of the woman's head. Her skull exploded, splashing blood and brains over the male terrorist's shirt."

I had remembered those gun names better than anything else about the characters who used them or the stories in which they featured, mostly because I've seen their names in so many video games since then. I'm intimately familiar with the "thoomp" of an M203 as it launches a grenade. I'm a fan of the three-round burst pattern, since it allows for better accuracy than full auto. In Uncharted 2, I always try to equip a FN-FAL (just called a "FAL" in the game) whenever possible.

Twenty-five years later, I've been trying to determine what it was about those trashy books that appealed to me. In my world, guns were a plaything, and real guns were an abstraction. The fact my parents had forbidden toy guns when I was younger only enhanced their appeal. Guns were taboo. I was a middle class white kid in a small Midwestern US town; I had never considered what it might be like to live somewhere where gun violence was a regular occurrence. It was the early '90s, seven years before Columbine and a couple of decades before the Black Lives Matter movement. I was surrounded with fictional guns while being insulated from real ones. In that way, gun culture so fully enveloped me that I couldn't even see it.

5. The Sommelier

After a few months of mainlining Phoenix Force books, that initial spark of subversive excitement died out. Even then, I think I could tell they were nasty and hollow, and before too long I lost interest. I started reading better books, and as I got older, came to enjoy a diverse and sophisticated selection of gun-filled cinema, TV programming and video games. My tastes have matured in the decades since I first read Phoenix in Flames, but my constant proximity to fictional firearms remains.

A lot of my favourite action movies include what I think of as the "Gun Details" scene, in which a character drops a weapon on a table, lists its make and model, and then runs down some of its technical specifications. The Gun Details scene often precedes what TVTropes calls the Lock and Load Montage, which frequently takes place in front of a Wall of Guns. In Jackie Brown, Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell Robbie famously describes a Kalashnikov AK-47 as the very best there is, for "when you absolutely, positively got to kill every motherfucker in the room".

John Wick, his Sommelier, and a Wall of Guns

In John Wick 2, Keanu Reeves' eponymous assassin meets with an Italian "sommelier" for a "tasting" that involves a detailed rundown of his firearms for an upcoming mission. Wick walks out with a set of Glock-34 and -36 handguns, an AR-15 assault rifle ("compensated with an ion bonded bolt carrier"), and a Benelli M4 tactical shotgun. I nodded with recognition as the sommelier named each of those guns, not just because I've read about them or seen them in movies, but because I've used them in video games.

Glock-style pistols, with their squarish shape and silver ejection port, turn up in everything from Battlefield to Half-Life. I've used AR-15-in-everything-but-name clones in games ranging from Far Cry 5 to Grand Theft Auto 5. The first gun you get in Far Cry 4 looks just like Ordell Robbie's beloved AK-47. And of course, the M4 tactical shotgun is the basis for weapons in just about every shooter I've ever played, from Max Payne 3 to Playerunknown's Battlegrounds. As he talks with his sommelier, John Wick might as well be a video game character selecting a loadout.

6. In Plain Sight

The theoretical link between video games and violence has remained consistently unproven, but the link between video games and guns is right there in front of us. Video games have a lot of guns in them, after all. Usually those guns are front and centre, right there in the middle of the screen, and a gun on screen is only a button-press away from expressing its purpose. As Waypoint editor Austin Walker put it in a recent editorial, guns are a shortcut to violence, violence is how a lot of games express power, and power is what most video games are really about.

Over the years, some of the realistic guns we've seen and used in video games were there because of negotiated licensing deals between video game publishers and gun manufacturers. That system of paid promotion was best outlined in a terrific 2013 Eurogamer exposé by journalist Simon Parkin, in which he excavated a pipeline of licensing money flowing between the two industries.

"It is hard to qualify to what extent rifle sales have increased as a result of being in games," a man named Ralph Vaughn told Eurogamer at the time. Vaughn was responsible for a placement deal that put one of the gun manufacturer Barrett's sniper rifles into Activision's Call of Duty franchise. "But video games expose our brand to a young audience who are considered possible future owners." (Parkin returned to the subject in a March New Yorker editorial about video game violence in which he mentioned that both Activision and Barrett hadn't responded to his requests to know whether the sorts of deals he reported for Eurogamer were still in place five years later.)

The sound designers at DICE recorded a military exercise in Sweden to help craft the soundscape for Battlefield 3. Image: Game Informer

Parkin's article was an eye-opener when it was published in 2013. It exposed a truth that had been hiding in plain sight: The guns we use in video games may not physically exist, but they aren't entirely separate entities from the guns used by the military or the police. They sometimes have the same brands, and often have been painstakingly reproduced on a visual level. They sound the same, too, as evidenced by the plethora of YouTube behind-the-scenes videos showing video game sound designers firing guns in the studio or out in the field, holding boom mics up during a live-fire military exercise.

If the games I've played over the last 10 years are anything to go by, there appears to be an assumption at many big-budget game studios that the guns in shooting games should look, feel and sound like the real thing.

7. Another Way Forward

Not all game developers are interested in maintaining mainstream gaming's gun-focused status quo. In 2016, Charlie Cleveland, director of the popular underwater survival game Subnautica, opened up about why he had decided to make the game gun-free. "I've never believed that video game violence creates more real-world violence," he wrote in response to fan queries on Steam, "but I couldn't just sit by and 'add more guns' to the world either. So Subnautica is one vote towards a world with less guns. A reminder that there is another way forward."

And there is another way forward, as evidenced by the countless video games that, like Subnautica, don't feature a single gun. A non-gamer could be forgiven for seeing how many popular games involve guns and coming away with the conclusion that most games have them, when that simply isn't true. I'm a fan of shooting games, but a quick survey of my Steam PC gaming library revealed that the majority of the games I have installed are gun-free.

Subnautica

Of the 110 games I have installed on my PC, 42 prominently have me using a lot of guns and getting into gunfights. That means 38 per cent of my installed PC games are gun games. The other 62 per cent have no guns, either because they're violent games that take place in worlds without guns (Dark Souls, Shadow of War), or because they don't feature combat at all (The Witness, Planet Coaster). Taking into account that I generally play a lot of shooter games, that's nowhere near as high a percentage as I had expected going in. And that's just me; there are doubtless plenty of people with hundreds of installed games and nary a single shooter among them. (Some supplemental data: Of my top 10 most-played Steam games, half feature guns and half don't, though all of them have combat of some kind.)

One of the things I find most exciting about video games is how often they show me something completely new. Every month, I play at least one game that does something I've never seen a video game do before. Taken in that context, that 38 per cent of my Steam library actually feels high, as does that 50 per cent of my most-played games. Is this really just what I like? Do I prefer games where you shoot people, or do I just play those games because so many of the biggest, most talked-about blockbusters tend to feature shooting? There are so many things that video games can do. The fact that so many of the most elaborate, best-funded ones are about (or at least involve) guns is deflating, regardless of how well-made or enjoyable those games might turn out to be.

Far Cry 5

I've recently been playing Far Cry 5, a very fun new game that, were it a television program, would probably air on NRA TV. Created by Canadian studios under the French publisher Ubisoft, it imagines a fever-dream scenario that implicitly makes a case for the most extreme possible interpretation of the Second Amendment. Every good man and woman in the game's fictional Hope County, Montana, is ready to pick up an AR-15 to fight off the maniacal, heavily-armed cult that's been threatening their homes. Sympathetic, friendly characters embody the NRA's infamous (and debunked) "good guy with a gun" theory. The villains are at the door, and the government isn't coming to save us. Good thing we have that bunker full of assault rifles.

Far Cry 5's folksy heroes and cattle-country setting make its embrace of American gun culture more explicit than other games, but most popular shooters from the last couple of decades have a similar worldview. In Far Cry 5 as in its contemporaries, guns are largely presented as an unalloyed good. Of course they are; these are shooting games. Because of how the game and its world have been designed, firearms are the first and best solution to whatever challenge you might need to overcome.

"Think about what having a gun in a game usually means," my boss Stephen Totilo wrote in a 2014 editorial. "Having a gun in a game seldom means that one shot gets fired. It means that thousands do. It means that, when we play in these gun-filled game worlds, we live in places where our heroes are merciless, where we/they aim for the head, where everyone we see is defined, at first glance as 1) a person to shoot or 2) a person to spare. There's a heat to these worlds and a hostility. These gun-filled game worlds feel cynical, angry and, worst, reduced. So little feels possible. When two people see each other in these worlds, most likely, one will shoot the other to death."

8. Judgement Call

In the wake of a mass shooting such as the one in Parkland, Florida (14 students and three staff killed by a 19-year-old with an AR-15 rifle), or the 2016 Orlando nightclub massacre (49 killed by a man with a Sig-Sauer rifle and a Glock 17 handgun), or last year's killing spree in Las Vegas (58 killed by a man with a collection of rifles including 14 AR-15s), it temporarily becomes much more difficult to talk about video games. At Kotaku, we might have been planning to run a post listing the best video game shotguns, or lauding a game series for making a famous WWII rifle so satisfying to use. We might have multiple posts that feature real-looking firearms as the top image. Sometimes, in the wake of a gun-related tragedy, we put those articles on hold. Other times we change the headline or the lead image. For a day or even a week, our easy reconciliation of thrilling virtual violence and horrific real-world violence becomes more challenging.

Whenever I hear about a new mass shooting, I find myself spending a lot of time imagining what it would be like to have been there. How would it feel to hide in a closet while a stranger with a gun stalks the hallway outside? How would it feel to watch a friend die in front of me and try to force myself to understand that this is really happening? These thoughts kinda take the wind out of my sails if I'm writing up some tips for picking the best gun in PUBG or whatever.

Around a week after the shooting in Parkland, I published an article about how much fun I was having playing Bayonetta 2 on Switch. I had snapped a screenshot for the top of the article, a typically iconic image of the titular witch striking a pose while holding her signature twin pistols.

Bayonetta 2

It would have been a good top image. It's an eye-grabber, with great framing - Bayonetta always knows how to strike a pose. The article ran with that image, but as soon as I saw it on our homepage, I changed my mind. Did the world really need to look down the barrel of another gun that day? Would it matter if I changed it, or was I being overly cautious and overthinking it? Did I need to worry that people who'd never played Bayonetta - a fabulous action game that's mostly about kicking big demons in the face with high heels - might see that image and think it was yet another gun game? It was a small thing to worry about; silly, even. I changed the image anyway.

9. Assembly Required

For all those times when the distance between virtual and real-life guns contracts, it remains for the most part an easy distinction to draw. There is a yawning chasm between the instant thrill of blowing away a virtual monster and the horror of seeing someone shot in real life. I'll laughingly watch a Sir Dimetrious sniper montage on YouTube, but recoil from videos such as the recent one of Arizona police officer Philip Brailsford shooting civilian Daniel Shaver as he knelt, unarmed, in a hotel hallway. The distance between those two things is matched by the huge difference between a video game gun and an actual gun.

That distance was cleverly explored by the computer game Receiver, a deceptively simple-looking 2012 first-person shooter made by Wolfire Games. Receiver's name hints at the central hook of the game. In gun parlance, the receiver is the part of the gun that houses the action and firing mechanism; it's the gun's "brain". Gun receivers feature prominently in Receiver, in which you play as a spy who's been armed with one of three handguns: A Colt M1911A1, a Glock 17 or a Smith & Wesson Model 10. Seems straightforward enough, until you realise that the game is simulating a handgun's functionality to an unusual degree.

Receiver

You press a key to eject the magazine, and a different key to load in a fresh one. One key pulls back the gun's hammer, while another lets you pull back the slide. Pulling the slide when the gun is loaded ejects bullets from the magazine, which wastes rounds you could have otherwise used. Other details in the game are more subtle, such as the fact that you won't see a gun's sights floating in your view until you aim, because your character walks with their gun pointed at the ground.

Receiver manages to be subversive simply by making the act of using a video game gun more like actually using a real gun. In doing so, it highlights the gulf between the two things. In most games, you can accurately hip-fire by pressing a single button. In most games, you can usually reload after firing two bullets and magically keep the unused ones in your stockpile. In most games, you can't pull back the hammer, can't eject unused shells, and don't need to insert bullets into a magazine one at a time.

In one way, Receiver's relative adherence to reality insulates other video game guns from criticism - that is, a handgun in Call of Duty is nothing like the real thing, so surely it makes no difference if people play those games. But Receiver also highlights the way in which many video games function like hyper-real gun propaganda. So many games are built around worlds where a gun is the first and last option for solving a problem. They depict guns as mighty and powerful; easy to use, thrilling to master, and weightless to carry. There's none of a gun's fumbling mechanical intricacy or mundane maintenance, let alone the lingering physical and emotional damage usually left in the aftermath of its use. In that respect, video game guns are a carefully-told lie. They're as close to real weapons as Captain America is to an everyday Allied soldier, face-down in the mud and praying for his life.

10. Bullet Fatigue

A game designer friend of mine, Chris Remo, often mentions on his podcast that he's stopped playing games that have a lot of guns. He says he just doesn't like them as much as he used to, and prefers to play other things. I asked him over email for some further thoughts on why, and when, his tastes changed.

He said that while his preference didn't change instantaneously, one moment does stick with him: "I remember a particularly potent experience playing one of the many Call of Duty games, and being totally overcome with 'bullet fatigue'. Particularly the audio. I suddenly found the constant sound of gunfire totally draining.

"The older I get," he said, "the more profoundly uncomfortable I become with the almost overwhelming obsession with guns in entertainment culture broadly, which gets harder and harder for me to totally disassociate from my much more strongly-held beliefs that real-world guns should be extremely rare and reserved for very limited purposes. I do not believe in a simple, easy correlation between fictional guns and real-life gun violence, but I do believe that entertainment and culture play one part in shaping our norms and expectations. If I lived in a country with strong gun control, I might feel less uncomfortable by the preponderance of guns in games, because any possible impact of guns in games is clearly marginal relative to the power of that regulation - but in a country that lacks strong widespread gun control, constantly encountering guns in games is an increasingly painful reminder of a part of our society with which I profoundly disagree."

Far Cry 2, one of Remo's favourites, is also a favourite of mine, in part because of how frank it is about the bleak violence it portrays. It's also a rare big-budget shooter with guns that can jam or even break.

Gun instructor Mike told me that while he still happily plays shooters such as The Division, he understands perspectives like Remo's. "The older I get, the less impressed I am with the shoot-em-up stuff," he said, adding that he now better understands the appeal of more cartoonish shooters such as Overwatch and Splatoon. "Whereas, you know, Call of Duty: WWII and stuff like that, it's getting to a point where it's uncomfortable for me. So I understand where people could get [to that point]. Where you play these games and you're like, man, this is just not something I can connect with as much. Maybe when you're younger, it's not as big of a deal. I think maybe as you age up, I think maybe people's attitudes might shift, or have shifted a little bit."

"As a game designer," said Remo, "I very strongly understand why guns are such a popular tool in game development, and why they are such a satisfying tool for game players. Games are about interactivity, and interactivity relies in part on your actions having a direct result on what's in front of you. Virtual guns are an absolutely amazing tool to achieve this - they work almost instantaneously and in extremely noticeable ways, and they work across many distances, which means their expressive potential for enacting state changes in the world is enormous. There are many, many games with guns that I love because of the creative ways they take advantage of these properties (yoooo, Far Cry 2). Despite all that, what guns represent has become too difficult for me to reconcile with those relatively transient joys, and it's not a set of tools I personally want to use."

Whenever Remo mentions his shifting tastes on on his show, I find myself nodding along. He's right, I'll think, just like I do when a vegetarian friend makes an argument against eating pork. This gun on my PC monitor represents and even glorifies one of the most broken things about America. Yet here I am staring at it, customising it, and revelling in its virtual power for hours every night.

I still play a lot of gun games, but I sense my preferences changing as the years go by. I no longer go out of my way to play Call of Duty games, and, like Remo, increasingly find games with a gunfire-dominated soundscape exhausting. When I play Battlefield 1, I treat it more like an intense, meditative type of war-reenactment than anything fun or empowering. I'm repulsed by the glorified black-ops shenanigans in Ghost Recon: Wildlands, despite how invigorating the game could be, were it somehow divorced from its narrative context. Slowly but surely, I can feel the number of shooting games I like shrinking as my preference for non-gun games grows. I sometimes wonder if there will be a breaking point, something that makes swear off gun-games forever. It will probably be a while yet.

11. Balance

Over the past month, the seemingly intractable American gun control debate has been kicked loose with a ferocity I've never before seen. Spurred by the resonant, furious voices of teen survivors of the Parkland shooting, hundreds of thousands of people marched last month in Washington and around the world to protest the US government's unwillingness to implement meaningful gun control. I want to hope that this time is different, without feeling like I have to wrap that hope in a hundred layers of jaded insulation. I want to believe that this time, something might actually change.

My inner cynic says that America is too far gone; there are already too many guns, and the NRA and its acolytes are too entrenched and powerful. Then I consider how my own relationship with guns and gun culture has changed over the years, from my thoughtless childhood fascinations to my more conflicted adulthood. I imagine the next generation starting where I am now, with so many extra years to grow smarter and do better. Maybe, in some cases, that's just how change happens. Over the course of decades, we slowly fall out from under the thrall of something we didn't even realise had enthralled us to begin with.

I don't like guns, but I do like video games, and video games have helped make guns a part of my life. I'm fascinated by my relationship to both things, even as I know I'll never strike a perfect balance between them. That's fine; balance is a process, not an objective. Now, as ever, the process of reconciling my virtual actions with my actual self remains laced with contradiction.


Comments

    I know this is a Kirk article and the Australian comments are unlikely to filter through, but I don't think I'd be a unique Aussie in saying I have a lot of games with guns. A lot. I've just finished a fairly comprehensive playthrough of Ghost Recon Wildlands, and yet not once did I think about the real world relationship between handling a MP5 digitally vs. in real life.

    I've shot rifles as a kid, and I've had small arms training as an adult (which was incredibly insightful ... needless to say if you're relying on me to save you with a pistol in my hand, the target is probably the last thing I'll hit), but I don't walk away from my Wildlands experience thinking about the real world parallels.

    Do you know why? Because I don't live in an ignorant, redneck, racist, backwater cesspool insisting that all the world's problems are the result of 'little brown people', and instead I rely on most people not having access to something that can kill me, while arming myself to prevent that very event.

    This point buried in the latter half of the article sums it up ...

    My inner cynic says that America is too far gone; there are already too many guns, and the NRA and its acolytes are too entrenched and powerful...

    I'd like to think America is salvageable, but I think the election of Trump and everything that's happened thereafter has firmly led me onto team cynic.

    Just control your goddamn guns, America.

    The theoretical link between video games and violence has remained consistently unproven
    And this is where the article should have stopped. All of this hand-wringing anxiety over guns and games is irrelevant, because there’s no link between gaming and violence. So what if you know guns on sight? Do you get the compulsion to kill someone with one? No? Congratulations, you’re normal. It’s a gameplay mechanic and nothing more. Even in more realistic VR sims like H3 it’s still just gameplay, it still has no link with real world violence. Getting upset or anxious about guns in games is silly.

    The USA’s fascination with guns runs deeper than simple media familiarity. It’s a pathological obsession that goes beyond worrying about guns in Doom.

    The real cognitive dissonance here is wanting to believe games don’t incite violence but also wanting to suggest that guns in games contribute to that pathological violence almost unique to US culture.

    I've fired a real life weapon only once, at a rifle range. It was the club's beat-up 'loaner gun'. At 100m, aiming at a paper target, with an old-timer sitting next to me spotting through a high-powered scope, I was given the instruction to line up the sights, point and click. That easy. That simple. Nothing more to it.

    I always thought I should be worried about wind direction, breathing, etc. Nope! Just point and click.
    So I did. The old-timer 'hmm'd and reached over to adjust my sights slightly, then instructed me to fire again. I did. There was a long pause, and the old-timer said, "Do that again..." So I did. With a tone approaching disbelief, he said, "Do that again!" as if daring me. I did. Again, and again, as he swore.

    Apparently he was surprised that the grouping was so close, so precise. At that distance, with a shitty club gun, I'd managed a good dozen shots with a grouping the size of a five cent piece.

    Switching to little moving duck silhouettes at various ranges wasn't actually much more difficult. The bullet travels fast enough at those ranges that you don't need to lead the target much at all. Certainly not as much as I was expecting. All my little mechanical duckies got plunked back once I realized that.

    I got a queasy, uncomfortable feeling when I realized that these weapons are used to hit not just targets, but living creatures. People. It is... disturbingly easy to hit a target the size of a five cent piece, when it's not moving. How much easier would it be to hit a person? A person's head? Most eyeballs are bigger than a five cent piece, right? How much easier when that person is closer than 100 metres?

    The guys at the range said I was a natural, that I'd nearly beaten one of the club champion's scores. They indicated that if I had better-maintained equipment, used properly-crafted ammo, I'd probably win competitions. So apparently I had skill.

    ***

    The most I've ever wondered about this is about the link between that skill, and video-games. Was that skill honed by video games?

    Probably not. I didn't realize it until my Dad retired, but apparently when he was younger, before my brothers and I were born, Dad was a championship shooter. When he retired, he picked it back up as a hobby, and is apparently still pretty good. Never touched a video game more violent or twitchy than Solitaire in his life. Well... he played duck hunt and Mario once to humour us when we first got the NES, but other than that, he never touched 'em. Video games didn't teach that skill.

    Hell, he reckoned it's a hell of a lot less about skill than it is about having good eyesight.

    My discomfort with picking up a real firearm and thinking about the consequences of using it is a pretty far cry from the abstract video game desensitization that we're always hearing about - games turning us into natural born killers. I can't quite give it much weight. Especially when studies indicate that I'm far from alone in that. The cop is spot-on. Guns in games are simply a mechanism akin to playing 'tag'. Click: tag/boom, you're it/temporarily 'dead.'

      I'm not going to call BS like Hyperlighter, as it is theoretically possible for a beginner to get a grouping like that.

      But the point he's making is correct - you didn't do it via *skill*, you did it via complete random fluke. Especially if your sights were being adjusted - it takes plenty of practice to be able to accommodate that in. If you've not previously practiced using adjustment, then your subsequent shots will be miles away from your original, as you literally have no experience of accommodation.

      Of course shooting is about skill and practice. This isn't sorcery, it's pretty simple application of physics, biomechanics, and technical knowledge.

      And as to your point as to how 'easy' it is to shoot a human target, that seems to be informed by your playing of video games mixed with this fluke. Even a non-moving human target is going to be difficult for many people to hit close up, based on recoil and lack of weapon handling knowledge. That's why even a small amount of actual training makes a difference.

      Factor in a moving target, and living targets move a LOT more unpredictably than video games or sideshow ducks, stress and environmental conditions, and again, you either need serious training or the aforementioned fluke.

      The bigger issue here is that as mentioned, people like yourself who play video games often THINK shooting a gun is easy. Does that play into situations such as school shootings? Well sure, but not in a meaningful way in terms of creating motive. It just means they often have an overblown belief in their capacity to shoot their victims, meaning that thankfully a few people may be spared if the shooter doesn't get actual gun training and relies on their 'gaming reflexes'.

      So your post actually argues more towards video games being a positive element in mass shootings.

      Last edited 05/04/18 10:35 am

    I considered not writing this, but i call BS on your story. I'm ex military and it sounds cliche but I've been trained in various weapon systems. The fact you mentioned you were shooting a target at 100 metres while your 'spotter' used a high powered scope is ridiculous. Secondly, your grouping would not have been a 5 cent piece, if your coach is constantly adjusting your sights until you're zeroed in, your grouping would be all over the shop. It makes sense if you did a 3 round bold adjust and then did 20 rounds for grouping but your story is either made up or grossly exaggerated to make you seem better than you are. Even military shooters doing a 20 round grouping don't have that size groupings with F-88's or M4's, let alone your crappy club gun. Also, properly crafted ammo? gun ranges require the use of proper manufactured or NATO rounds, unless that gun club specifically allows for reloads.

    Your thoughts on the article are fair as its your opinion, just would have been better if you didn't wank on about being a "good shot"...

      Mate, at a regional gun club back when I was in Bundaberg some 15yrs ago, I dunno how or why they did what they did with regards to 'shitty' (I assume hand-filled? Yellow box if that means anything to you?) ammo vs 'proper' stuff, but it was a .22, bolt action, one adjustment was a little wide, the spotter leaned over to adjust the iron-sight, and the rest was that super-tight grouping that he didn't believe, gifting me the card. I probably have the paper target sitting in an old storage box somewhere if I could be bothered taking a photo and uploading it somewhere for internet peen. Reconcile the facts however you want, the point was: it was ultra-easy for me to get a grouping the size of a five cent piece. And very unlikely to be due to any particular gaming-conferred skills, but per my Dad's thoughts: just really good eyesight. Maybe their praise about nearly beating the club champion's score was their way of luring in a new member and getting those dues? That only makes the reality of getting a tight grouping that much spookier, if my inexperienced first-timer ass wasn't actually that hot.

      Matter of fact, I'm seriously skeptical about the depth of your knowledge or experience, because I know for a fact that the ranges my Dad has fired at in Qld allow hand-made/hand-loaded (whatever the term is) ammo, because he had his own equipment in the shed for loading. And that was as recent as five years ago.

        I fired guns once at a range in Arkansas and it was easy to shoot things. Shooting a gun does not appear to be a herculean feat of brains or brawn after spending two hours at a range. You point gun and shoot gun. Seems it would be made easier with a learned guy using binoculars to fix your sights or whatever.

          For sure, I'm not denying the fact shooting in general is hard, because it's not, it's designed to be simple. I'm more pointing out that things like grouping and maintaining well positioned fire is a learned skill. I'm more pointing out that transient's humble brag is incorrect and it's actually quite insulting towards professional shooters to say that any chump can pick up a gun and lay down a grouping the size of a 5 cent piece. If that's the case then he should be representing us at the Commonwealth games...

            Shrug? It was ridiculously easy to get that grouping, and the old-timers seemed genuinely impressed.

            If it's as difficult as you say, then maybe they weren't just blowing smoke up my ass to get me to join up and pay club fees, and maybe I should have stuck around to try competing professionally like they said I should.

            I wouldn't know any different, because like I said - first and only time firing a weapon, and that was the result. Far as I know, given my one and only experience of the profession... that's just how it is for anyone with decent eyes and a steady hand. Guess I'm wrong! No disrespect intended, because I have no other experience or knowledge to compare it to.

            As for the other details... like yellow being shitty, and red (or was it blue?) being 'good', or an old-timer reaching over to some kind of floating, non-scoped, glass-less iron-sight and adjusting it with a few clicks of a dial?

            I'll relate a different story that might help. Once I drove four hours north of the city with an IT expert to show him an LCD monitor that had burn-in, because he outright refused to believe that LCD monitors can burn-in. He said it was physically impossible due to the very nature of what an LCD actually IS, at its core. And to be fair, I'd always thought that, too, until I saw one with my own eyes. But the guy just insisted that I was a liar, thought I either didn't know what burn-in was, or didn't know what an LCD monitor was, because the reality as far as he knew was that LCD monitors are physically incapable of burn-in. And so we drove, so he could be vindicated.

            But there it was, plain as day in front of us. An LCD monitor with burn-in. My IT mate looked the thing over up, down and sideways and pretty much even refused to believe his eyes. He complained that it was a shitty Chinese monitor which must have had imperfections in the crystals or some shit, and that by rights it doesn't even deserve to be called an LCD monitor.
            But the fact was: it was an LCD monitor, and it had the Windows desktop and icons burned the fuck into it. I don't need to humblebrag because as any regulars know, I'm plenty fine with regular bragging. You say 'just calling it like you see it'? I'm just telling it like it actually was. If the details I've related don't sit right against your professional knowledge, then that's not going to keep me up at night... but I've got a decent memory of this pretty unique moment in my life, and while you might be the expert with years of experience, I know what reality was: so I can only assume whatever doesn't fit is your LCD monitor with burn-in.

              it's uncommon, but I'm not going to rule out that it's impossible, more just improbable. Colouring on ammunition is both a branding as well as an awareness that ammo is around, kinda like a hi-vis vest. Sounds like he was adjusting the range on your sights, which is fair.

              Only difference at this point is proof, as you showed him a burned in LCD tv, but I've yet to see the grouping. But at this point I'm not fussed, if you believed the events happened then sure, I'll still remain skeptical but go on the guise of innocent until proven otherwise. But let it be known for everyone. Shooting in real life as opposed to games is insanely different. Both require time and practice. If shooting was as easy in games like CoD, it would have made my military career so much easier!

        That would be Browning as the manufacturer in regards to the ammo box, weird they said it was shitty as that is manufacture made. Eyesight doesn't really play a big role in shooting, you can wear glasses or contacts and that'll fix the issue, groupings are to do with marksmanship principles and body positioning. You can't just point and click and get a dope grouping, I've seen rookies do that and get no where, also, the fact he was adjusting your iron sights means you couldn't have. Iron sights require tools for adjusting so you're constantly breaking position for readjustments. The moment you break position or adjust your sights you compromise your grouping.

        But i won't lie, hitting things in general at 100m with a rifle is pretty easy.

        But i'll put your mind at ease on my experience, ex military, served four years in the Australian military in 2RAR, was a section machine gunner then became the section grenadier using a GLA (grenade launcher assembly). I lived and breathed weaponry as it was my literal job to be good at it, that's why I don't believe you when you say it's easy to get a tight grouping straight away, because it requires practice, a lot of it. Personal reloading is fine, it's permitted in Aus for both ranges and personal use, but it shouldn't matter if you have the correct gear to reload, technically it should be like firing a brand new round.

    Gotta love how truly ignorant and paranoid Australians are about guns, how brainwashed they are by the fake stream media LOL.

    guns are tools. If you're responsible and know how to use them it's no problem. Criminals don't obey laws so even trying to ban guns is laughable, especially with 300mil+ guns in the US. Bans only affect responsible gun owners. Fyi there's no such thing as an Assault Weapon - it's a name given to a scary looking tactical esque rifle which functionally, is identical to any other semi auto. Both in terms of calibre and core design.

    Mass shootings always happen in gun free zones in the US. FUNNY THAT! While concealed carry states have much less crime. That's a fact you can google right now. You're feelings about guns don't change this fact. Aus Govt are nanny state control freaks. Gun crime was on the down before the confiscation and still is, so anyone who says banning guns reduces crime is an idiot.

    Criminals in Aus have guns. Bikes, gangs etc yet Aussies can't protect themselves, not even with pepper spray or a vest. When the pollies disarm their bodyguards then I'll reconsider the hilarious idea of disarming the population and preaching about how bad guns are, while going everywhere with ARMED bodyguards. What a joke. Do some research about guns before acting like a scared child and lecturing everybody.

      And yet, since the ban, no mass shootings. But you have to come and treat us like cretins even though we don't even have a say (or a care) for what goes in your country, ignoring facts, evidence and /results/. But we are the ones that are emotional and scared? Mate, whenever one of you opens their mouth we can hear the gurgle of poorly contained pee from the absolute terror that they take your precious guns from you and you lose the only source of self-esteem and validation. Er, I mean, terror that all those brown peoples that you hate so much, take over the US and create a Marxist-Leninist dystopia, (or whatever fearmongering propaganda the gun sellers feed you nowadays) and you are defenceless to stop them.

      Thinly veiled terror, either way.

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