Video Game Guns Don't Need to Be "Fun" to Be Interesting
What if video game guns were allowed to be tragic or frightening instead of just empowering?
Call of Duty: WWII screenshot courtesy of Activision
This article is part of a special series on the intersection of guns and games. For more, click here.
We run a website called Bullet Points, which is dedicated to discussing the value of shooting in games through weekly long-form criticism, and any time real-world gun violence hits the news, it prompts some self-reflection. The direct intersection of what often seems like total fantasy violence in video games and the reality of murder forces a reevaluation of what we’re doing, even as a small website.
Thankfully, that intersection reaffirms an editorial goal that’s led our work from the very beginning: to examine what each shooter means as a cultural artifact, as it collides reality and fantasy, representation, and abstraction. Bullet Points and its spiritual predecessor, the essay collection SHOOTER, recognize that not only are games with guns fascinating on a broad cultural, political, and personal level, but also that “shooting” is a ubiquitous, genre-agnostic mechanic that demands serious inquiry.
There’s no object more prevalent in video games than the gun; with the exception of jumping, no interaction more standard than firing a bullet. With that ubiquity comes a lack of consideration—games have guns because games have always “had guns.” Competitive shooters from Quake to Fortnite pit gun-toting players against each other in a loose simulation of bloodsport. Story-focused shooters like The Last of Us and Red Dead Redemption tell stories in between, around, and occasionally during exaggerated gunfights that, to one degree or another, function to test the player’s skill.
This is a video game website, so you probably know all that history. But it’s useful to re-contextualize the ever-present gun, to move it outside its usual habitat to get a closer look at it. One of the essential video game verbs, the equivalent of film grammar or sentence construction in a book, is “to shoot.” Shooting is the action that progresses the player through a shooter.
If you want to see what happens in Uncharted 4 you have to shoot a thousand paramilitary grunts. Shooting in S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Receiver, or the early Silent Hill games, to name a few, is less automatic and more of a conscious action because the gun itself is unreliable and ammo is scarce. On the opposite end, Destiny makes guns desirable, glamorous luxury objects whose function as weapons is largely secondary. These games all belong to various genres to begin with, but the ways their guns function are as disparate as the range between sitcom and documentary TV, sci-fi action spectacles and sobering war movies.
It’s this last comparison, though, that draws the heaviest criticism. It would take a lot of bad-faith effort to seriously consider a game like the gloriously irreverent 2016 DOOM revival or the candy-colored superhero match-ups of Overwatch’s armed battles a model for real-world behavior, but military shooters like the Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Medal of Honor series are explicitly representational—their guns are recreations of real guns and their various factions and locales are thinly fictionalized, if they are at all.
Through the long history of a single series like Call of Duty, real-world conflicts ranging from the Second World War to Vietnam, the Angolan Civil War, and the American invasion of Panama are directly modeled while Western special forces actions and the Iraq War are abstracted into barely disguised new forms. While the quality of commentary across these games ranges from biting critique to unquestioned jingoism, they all use constant, conscious parallels to reality in order to create a view of the world where Western (typically American) military might is the key agent of change in global politics. The Gun serves as a simplistic shorthand for the complexities of history and evolving international relations.
It only makes sense, then, that military shooters embody the most materially troubling marriage of games and guns. Here you can use real-world firearms to execute state-sanctioned murder all over the globe, which in the confines of virtual fantasy seems a perfectly innocent thing to do—but in 2013, Simon Parkin examined the link between arms manufacturers and publishers of military shooter franchises like EA and Activision. “Today we know that a portion of every dollar spent on triple-A military-themed video games flows into the pockets of small arms manufacturers,” Parkin wrote. Even though the narrative potency of military shooters’ political fever dream scenarios are fertile ground for criticism centered on digital gun violence, articles like Parkin’s suggest the overlap is more than theoretical.
This doesn’t mean they should be condemned out-of-hand or dismissed as unworthy of critical conversation. Instead, the direct consequences of the military shooter’s tendency to blend real and imaginary gun violence into a(n often nauseating) whole show that there is real work to be done in discussing what kind of artistic value this amalgamation may or may not have.
Stepping back a bit from the necessarily loaded symbolism of military shooters, it’s easy to trace the history of gun violence in games to a supposedly simpler time—one whose ”violent video game” moral panics focused on the over-the-top, B-movie gore of games like Splatterhouse, Mortal Kombat, and DOOM. Each of these, as cheekily campy as they look in the age of high-definition cranium-bursting headshots, was scapegoated for all kinds of societal ills. The Trump administration’s resurrection of this musty issue seems especially quaint because video game violence has lost its transgressive spark.
The modern military shooter, which began in earnest with 1999’s Medal of Honor, casts you as a tool of global U.S. dominance—a cause no self-respecting senator could possibly take issue with. Reeling from the gun-control Rubicon that was Sandy Hook in 2013, then-vice president Joe Biden met with game industry executives much like Trump did after Parkland, and similarly achieved no real results aside from a photo op. The cultural value of violent video games being decided on by government functionaries who don’t play them and industry executives trying to protect their portfolios is a pretty dire situation.
...gun violence in games doesn’t have to be spectacular and fun in order to be entertaining...
But games, as ever, are not the first medium to be in this position. Moral panics have assailed everything from comic books to Dungeons & Dragons, and this particular one is no more legitimate because it’s happening again to games. If developers, publishers, industry executives, and critics are now invested in justifying games to the guardians of moral and artistic approval—whomever they may be—selective, borderline propagandist montages of “beautiful moments” will not cut it.
For decades games have profited from and identified with The Gun. In the minds of developers, players, politicians, and commentators, The Gun is here to stay in video games. It may seem unfair, because the onus should be on policymakers, pundits, and journalists, to educate themselves on the medium before they make decisions that have serious effects. But at the same time, gaming has embraced and done very well out of simulated gun violence for ages, so pleading clemency on the grounds that not all video games have guns in them risks sounding disingenuous: the fact is, gaming, in general, likes its guns, and is known to like them.
As much as it’s possible to define a unified “us” in a culture that’s artistically, aesthetically, and personally diverse, the task ahead of us is reframing the video game gun as something meaningful; embracing it for a second time, but on different premises. The video game gun doesn’t have to simply be a source of excitement. It doesn’t have to be frivolous, like a power tool or a toy. From the the light-show ray guns of Overwatch to the military-fetishist replications of licensed assault rifles in Call of Duty, it’s how the gun is used, and the context it is used in, that matters.
...the sheer prevalence of guns has made them meaningless—like a cursor in a real-time strategy game, an interface element that gets reskinned again and again.
Comparing games to films, television, books, or any other form inevitably leads to all kinds of false equivalences. But rarely in art does violence read as a foregone conclusion the way it does in video games; that is, throughout art history, violence has been used for dramatic effect. When Michael kills Fredo in The Godfather, it means something. The dark jet of blood that lashes across Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes means something. The kills in slasher movies mean something. If games and guns are destined to be together, in their kind of amour fou, starting to appreciate and utilize guns’ finer points—to imagine them as props that can facilitate dramatic significance—is one way of complicating and enriching game violence.
Abandoning guns completely would be another in a long line of video games’ acts of willful ignorance. Preferable is to imagine games engaging with what guns represent, not just how they feel to shoot. Guns are frightening, and the violence committed with them could be depicted as unnecessary or tragic. Breaking Bad, Dunkirk, The Wire, City of God—popular hits such as these, whose gun violence is never so straightforward as to be “exciting” or “empowering” imply that the audience for mass-media, often the same audience buying video games, can stomach and is perhaps even enthralled by the idea that guns aren’t pretty.
In short, gun violence in games doesn’t have to be spectacular and fun in order to be entertaining; on the contrary, there’s something morbidly fascinating about guns’ horrific qualities and the pride of place they occupy in popular culture. There is no binary. If games were to suddenly take a less comprising look at gun violence, the financial success of uncompromising looks at gun violence in other media suggests they wouldn’t suddenly, precipitously lose all their sales potential. Virtually shooting someone and feeling bad about it—or feeling anything about it, really—sounds like an intriguing prospect.
A video game gun can facilitate any kind of narrative, from the slapstick gore of DOOM, Hitman, or Gears of War to the ostensibly realistic grit of a Ghost Recon Wildlands, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, or any number of Call of Duty and Battlefield games. But the sheer prevalence of guns has made them meaningless—like a cursor in a real-time strategy game, an interface element that gets reskinned again and again. Violence in games exists as a kind of amorphous concept that we, creators and critics alike, too often fail to inspect as closely as it warrants. The gun, sitting at the center of all of this as a blood-soaked reminder of the stakes at hand, is just the most visible symbol of a medium’s increasingly deadened understanding of life and death.