Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

A Closer Look at Our Dark Obsession With Guns Looking "Cool"

ByKelsey AthertonandIan Boudreau

When games and guns became platforms, their marketing and culture started to converge.

Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

We are living in the age of tacticool, and the AR-15 pattern rifle is the weapon of the age. Tacticool has become a widespread aesthetic expression associated with the kind of militant hypermasculinity that gave us a "tactical lip balm" Kickstarter and "everyday carry" versions of mundanities like wallets and charging cables (check out this utility moneyclip with a multitool from 5.11, who have a "product integration partnership" with Ubisoft).

It's hard to define precisely—though you often know it when you see it—but it transformed firearms and associated equipment from functional specialty gear into elaborate statements of identity and belief. Its origins are inextricably connected to a modern gun culture that grew up around the AR-15, the civilian version of the US Army's standard infantry rifle—and a video game culture whose development paralleled it.

Like other gatekept hobbies, deciphering what is and isn’t tacticool in gun often means fighting through a jargon that casts people outside the hobby as too ignorant to meaningfully weigh in on facts about and rules governing its tools. Consider the curious case of the chainsaw bayonet, a novelty rail-mounted accessory (here’s one from 2012) that appeared in a USA Today infographic about AR-15 accessories last November. After a "well-actually" backlash about the absurdity of the chainsaw bayonet, the paper issued a clarification that the chainsaw bayonet was not used by the Sutherland Springs shooter when he killed 26 people.

How did we get here? Tacticool is the byproduct of a long evolution in gun design. From the first arquebus to the latest infantry firearm, every gun has held a fundamental purpose in common. Yet there is something distinct about the modern gun, especially the family of weapons based around the AR-15. These guns are, at their core, still weapons, but they are also personalized keepsakes, upgrade-ready and customized to their owner’s delight. The story of how personal rifles went from mass produced uniform products to highly customizable templates for aftermarket accessories is so compelling, we’re going to tell it twice: once with physical weapons in the tangible world, and again with virtual weapons as seen in games.

Photo courtesy Performance Executive Office Soldier

Rail-guns

Gun modification is as old as the first firearms, with repair and iteration leading to new designs and innovations. Bayonets, perhaps the most iconic gun modification, were first fielded in the 17th century, and by the 18th century socket bayonets replaced plug bayonets, allowing musket-armed infantry to perform the same function that mixed musket-and-pike infantry had previously performed. In large part, the standardization of bayonet-equipped muskets reflected the warfighting needs of the day, which demanded identical behavior from masses of identical infantry.

Despite what the intro to Fallout might tell you, the particulars of war change all the time. As accuracy improved, commanders could get more massed fire from a handful of fighters with automatic weapons than prior generations could get from entire platoons armed with muskets and early rifles. As individual firepower increased, so too did an emphasis on each shooter getting the most out of the weapon they carried. Which brings us to one possible birthplace of the modern accessorized gun: the late 1980s.

In 1989, the Pentagon started to develop a Special Operations Peculiar Modification (SOPMOD) Kit, in order for special operators to get the most utility out of the firearm they carried. That meant accessorization with more reliable means than duct tape and clamps, and to that end, the kit introduced a rail system that users could attach to the barrel. The rail system was the standard attachment point for other accessories, ranging from special grips to multiple sights to grenade launchers and suppressors. Named after New Jersey’s Picatinny Arsenal and developed in the early 1990s, the Picatinny Rail became the standard rail for accessory mounting. By 1995, the Department of Defense published a specific military standard for accessory rails, built around the picatinny model, which defined dimensions and functions. When the new rails were introduced for the AR-15 platform (including weapons like the M16 and M4), the rails became another tool for a gun enthusiast community that already had experience with—and a market for— modifications of everything from barrel changes (to accommodate different sizes of ammunition) to opposite-side bolt ejectors that protect left-handed users from the spent casings.

Photo courtesy of Performance Executive Office Soldier

With the rail in place, the standard M4A1 carbine was no longer a simple assault rifle: It was now the frame and basis for a personalizable tool, a general purpose weapon adapted and modified to a specific function.

First, the rail made any gun it was attached to a far more flexible piece of equipment, adapted by shooters uniformed or otherwise to better fit their particular needs. Second, the rail as a platform fueled a market for better rail-mounted accessories and better rails. And this moved beyond just rifles and carbines, with accessory-accommodating rails now on pistols and shotguns. The rails even allowed for shotguns to be attached to M4 carbines.

Enter “tacticool.” Where did it come from? We couldn’t pin down a first use (the word doesn’t appear to show up in print much if at all before the turn of the century), but by the late 2000s it was richly debated in online forums, as flame warriors shot back and forth over which types of gun accessories were tactical, and which were simply tacticool.

In general, “tacticool" describes stylistic choices in weapon modification that are at best irrelevant to the function of the gun, and at times compromise functionality in the name of giving the gun a more aesthetically pleasing appearance (even if it means shoulder protection be damned). The mainstreaming of rail-accessories from special addition for combat to hobbyist novelty is perhaps best reflected in the “tacticool” section at nerd-centric online retailer ThinkGeek, where you can find a tactical laser pointer styled after the ridges of a picatinny rail.

Which is how we get to the present day, when rails originally designed so that special operators didn’t have to duct-tape flashlights to their weapons are now such a commonplace way for gun owners to show off their personalized tool that there are at least two different companies selling rail-mounted testicles.

'Modern Warfare 2' screenshot courtesy of Activision

Games heed the call

Military-themed video games have been around for decades, but the heavy emphasis on fastidious weapon accuracy and customization is a surprisingly recent trend. Following September 11, 2001, as America’s subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq lengthened and broadened, games began to look different—the dull greys and browns of the “modern military shooter” replaced the vivid reds and blues of Duke Nukem 3D and other Build Engine games. Quake’s nailguns and rocket jumping ceded space to the AK-47 and the M16.

Some of this was fairly organic, reflecting the obvious American cultural shift caused by the wars. Games became a way—for good or ill—for a new generation to contextualize war. Where our parents had digested Vietnam through movies like Platoon and The Deer Hunter, we had Medal of Honor and a host of Tom Clancy-branded games like Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon.

In 2007, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare introduced a leveling system to the series’ popular multiplayer modes, and with this came unlockable weapons and attachments. While sometimes named incorrectly, Modern Warfare’s weapons were all painstakingly modeled on real-world firearms like the Beretta 92SB and the Desert Eagle Mark XIX. That same year saw the release of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas, which allowed players to use and customize 33 distinct firearms like the Benelli M3 Super 90 shotgun and Heckler & Koch’s XM8 assault rifle.

It was around this time that we moved into the modern age of video game weapons. Up to this point, each gun was a distinct entity and came as-is. There would be a sniper rifle with one particular scope on it, one shotgun, one or maybe two assault rifles. Now, you could mix and match your favorite optic with your favorite rifle, popping an ACOG onto a UMP 40 or adding a laser dot to your M4.

'Army of Two' screenshot courtesy of Electronic Arts

Weapon customization continued to grow in popularity. 2010’s Army of Two allowed players to swap out stocks, use higher-capacity magazines, and add underslung grenade launchers and shotguns on their weapons. But Army of Two also included the option to—and the game actually used this term—“pimp” guns with garishly rococo weapon skins, adding gold plating and diamond encrusting to the player’s arsenal.

Setting aside the issue of weapon bling for the moment, games’ fascination with hyper-realistic weapons and accessories was not solely the result of society’s natural preoccupation with modern-day war. Arms manufacturers identified gamers as potential customers, and by 2013 had launched a concerted effort to get their products placed prominently in video games. In much the same way that automakers like Toyota and Chevy license their cars for use in racing games, weapons manufacturers began selling use rights for their products for use in modern military shooters.

Barrett Rifles is a Tennessee-based weapons company that makes a .50-caliber sniper rifle, the Model 82A1, that has appeared in countless games from Fallout 2 to Battlefield 4.

"It is hard to qualify to what extent rifle sales have increased as a result of being in games," said Ralph Vaughn, who negotiates video game licensing deals for Barrett, in a 2013 Eurogamer story. “But video games expose our brand to a young audience who are considered possible future owners.”

'Ghost Recon: Wildlands' screenshot courtesy of Ubisoft

Vaughn is also quoted in Richard Stanton’s A Brief History of Video Games: “We want to know explicitly how the rifle is to be used, ensuring that we are shown in a positive light,” he said.

As the picatinny rail was redefining the meaning of “cool” in American gun culture and providing a platform for aftermarket customization, video games were being enlisted as a brand-new marketing vector for firearms and their accessories. The rail, and the AR-15 family of weapons, is everywhere in games today. It features prominently in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which is in a large part a game about finding and slotting new rail-mounted gizmos onto your weapons. Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege lets you customize dozens of real-world weapons using the picatinny rail.

Siege’s weapon customization options don’t begin and end with real-world accessories, either. Like many games today, Siege also lets players add skins and charms to their in-game guns. If weapon customization in games began as a way to market firearms and accessories, the personalized video game weapon is now an end in itself: “player recurring investment” represented $374 million—more than 20 percent—of Ubisoft’s 2016-2017 annual revenues.

In August of 2013, Valve released the Arms Deal Update for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The game had been out for a year and had not performed well—in fact, CS:GO hadn’t even managed to beat out previous Counter-Strike titles. All that changed with the Arms Deal Update, which added cosmetic weapon skins that players receive as random drops during the game. The purchase of keys to open virtual weapon cases funds prize purses for CS:GO tournaments, and watching these tournaments is another chance to win special “souvenir” weapon skins in-game.

CS:GO’s popularity exploded following the Arms Deal Update. After an anemic first year where concurrent players topped out at around 50,000, CS:GO now routinely has more than half a million players daily.

Just like the picatinny rail did for real-life weapons, weapon skins have created a whole new economy for capitalization in games. There’s good money to be made creating skins, and souvenir Dragon Lore skin for the AWP sniper rifle, dropped during the Boston Majors tournament, recently sold for more than $61,000 on a skin reseller site (the Steam marketplace caps item listings at $400).

This is my rifle

It’s slightly facile to claim that weapon customization is merely a clever bit of marketing cribbed from the gun industry, but the similarities are hard to ignore. Games like Gears of War 3, Destiny 2, and even Rainbow Six Siege have included skin designs that are more whimsical and gilt than the tacticool gear you’d see on the range. And in games, skins are communicating some additional information: dedication to the game in sheer hours played, fandom of a particular esports team, or the fact that a player participated in an in-game event or witnessed a certain tournament.

But both weapons manufacturers and game publishers have clearly identified the gun as a sort of canvas for self-expression for both gun owners and players. In competitive games like Counter-Strike, a player’s personally tricked-out weapons have potentially high visibility: as players are knocked out during a round, their point of view often shifts to that of a player still up, with all eyes eventually on the last one standing. Having a rare or costly skin equipped during these high-pressure moments can make it feel like you’re more memorable, more competent, more elite. And as Riot Games product manager Adriaan Noordzij put it, “vanity doesn’t really have a price ceiling.”

What is the modern gun? It is an avatar of the user, built to comfort and capability and aesthetic consideration, whether that be a barrel heavy with semi-functional doodads or a bright and shiny case signifying time spent in-game. Through customization, guns move from interchangeable functional machines to personalized, individualistic artifacts. Tacticool may still exist on the range, but videogames have adopted the same mindset and made it into something of their own—a weird and materialistic worship of cold, misanthropic parts, all designed with one goal in mind: to look elite.

But from the human perspective—the potential target perspective—these weapons that we fuss over and nerd out over have one job. As Vonnegut put it about a 38-caliber revolver, “this was a tool whose only purpose was to make holes in human beings.”