Why Video Game Headshots Will Always Be Popular And Unsettling

Why Video Game Headshots Will Always Be Popular And Unsettling
A still from the E3 2012 trailer for <em>The Last Of Us</em>. (Image: Sony)

Like a lot of people who play video games, I have spent decades aiming at digital heads. I have also spent a considerable amount of time during those years feeling uncomfortable about it. “Headshots” as a concept are, as Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo wrote in a 2010 report, ghoulish to the outsider, and essential to the gamer.

Over the past couple days, I started watching YouTuber Jacob Geller’s video essays on games. “Rationalizing Brutality: The Cultural Legacy of the Headshot” is a good example of why I find them compelling. Geller constructs well-researched videos exploring a topic contextually, pulling not just from video games but across media, history and current events.

Content Warning: The video references and depicts graphic violence from both games and historical footage.

“Rationalizing Brutality” is an even-keeled examination of the very idea of headshots, one that traces humankind’s understanding of the location of the “self”. In both medical science and popular culture, the “self” was thought to lie in the heart, but eventually our conception of where “we” are in our bodies drifted upward to the brain.

Geller, citing numerous games and scholarly papers such as Amanda Phillips’ “Shooting to Kill: Headshots, Twitch Reflexes, and the Mechropolitics of Video Games” ruminates on the much-discussed role of the headshot in game design, as well as the way it has slowly become the primary depiction of death by gunshot in popular culture.

What makes Geller’s video good isn’t that it’s arguing for or against gun violence in games, but rather what it might mean to have a large body of popular entertainment shift in a direction that specifically valorises the headshot.

Committing acts of digital violence does not lead to a desire to commit real violence, but art does influence understanding. And if our current understanding of the self is something rooted in the brain, what does it mean to have all this media where the destruction of a head, and therefore arguably the self, is the primary thrill?

And what should we make of it, when, say, we read the news and see that a police officer has shot someone in the head, a target that no soldier or law enforcement officer is trained to hit, with extreme exception?

These are difficult, powerful questions, and as Geller’s video shows, questions that games can also help us parse.


  • Committing acts of digital violence does not lead to a desire to commit real violence

    what should we make of it, when, say, we read the news and see that a police officer has shot someone in the head, a target that no soldier or law enforcement officer is trained to hit, with extreme exception?

    I spot a contradiction skippy.

    • I spot someone that didn’t understand the article, champ. The point is, no one teaches officers to shoot for the head, but pop culture constantly reinforces that only headshots mean they won’t get back up. Officers are ignoring their own training, which are supposed to kick in like instincts, to go for a harder to hit target.

      Nothing to do with a heightened desire to cause violence.

      • That’s implying that digital violence is leading to real-world violence bud.

        Headshots happen in videogames, Therefore when someone gets shot in the head it must be videogames fault.

        • They’re different things. The implication is that digital decision-making influences real-world decision-making, which is already established in behavioural science. That’s not the same thing as digital violence increasing the prevalence or desire to inflict real-world violence.

      • You have no understanding of military firearms training as well as ballistics. While as a recruit in the army you are trained to shoot the centre of “seen mass”, elite units and CQB tactics train you to shoot the target in the head to immediately immobilise the threat. Also if you fire a handgun at any distance over 15 metres or in rapid succession, bullets are liable to have a significant spread of impact.
        Finally, if you have a person in a car posing a threat, most likely the head will be the area of the body unobstructed by door panels, dashboard or engine block.

        • I thought you aimed for the “T” or at least US marines are. T being the jaw and neck area. Sever the brain stem.

    • I don’t think police shooting for the head is being given as an example of real life violence but an example of when media might possibly influence understanding.
      Police are trained to group to centre mass for lethal effect so it’s actually an interesting question as to why somebody might aim for the head in the heat of the moment and the idea of looking at long term subconscious conditioning through various forms of media is an interesting hypothesis.

      • I seriously doubt when a police officer shoots someone in the head in a situation where they have needed to pull their firearm, they are thinking “BOOM HEADSHOT!”

        They more than likely feel like their life is in danger and have a split-second decision on what to do.

        All that person is thinking at the time is what they can do to ensure they live, Not that because movies and video games have headshots, therefore it’s okay to do one now.

        • Never said they did and neither is the article or video.

          I’m not saying your wrong mate, I was just offering an alternative view on the context of the statements, you should check out the video, it goes in to a bit of detail with some interesting observations and doesn’t make the argument that violent videos games and other media causes violence.

          • Oh I’m not accusing you of saying that. More just bouncing thoughts off you. I appreciate the discussion 🙂

      • It’s probably unintentional, and perhaps an artefact or media reporting. If somebody is shot in the head they will lead with that, rather than the other 3 wounds in the chest and leg. The connection between video games and subsequent actions are tenuous at best. Alternatively, video games existed well after people were aiming for cranial destruction as a means of death, so it’s probably a stretch to say they invented or popularised it.

        • Thanks kinda the point I think, media is a big part.
          The video concentrates more on film in the beginning and I took games as more an extension of the phenomenon, definetly not a cause.
          You look at the actions films we grew up on as kids compared to the ones we see today and the difference is astounding, striving for realism has had a profound impact on the media we consume.

          I definitely wouldn’t argue that it’s a slam dunk but it is an interesting idea worth the discussion, the idea of media influencing actions in strange ways isn’t unheard of.
          Some of the examples I have prob aren’t appropriate, such as suicide but there’s many other tropes that films have created and propagated over the years.

  • Headshot means you will very likely die. Like punching someone in the head is most likely to knock them out (or kill them). That’s all it means. That’s why it has impact in movies and games, and that’s probably why the cop shot the person in the head. It doesn’t require some academic critique of where one’s ‘self’ is to figure out.

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