Firearms ownership is very prevalent in the USA. About 23.1 million background checks were conducted in 2015 alone — the highest ever recorded since the current system for background checks was started in 1998. Despite the globalisation of game development in the age of digital distribution and self-publishing, the USA still has a lion’s share of game development – especially when it comes to big AAA games.
The gaming press, too, is a very America-centric affair, but as we’ve seen demonstrated on multiple occasions, that press is made up of people with a very narrow range of ideas and experience. With all the hand-wringing from both sides of the political aisle on the subject of guns within video games, there has been precious little written from the perspective of actual gun owners. The intersection of firearms and video games is an interesting subject that sadly has a very limited scope of discussion.
From my own experience, I know many of my gaming friends & acquaintances have experience with firearms, so I wanted to channel their thoughts — along with my own, as a military history & engineering buff who’s interested in the mechanical ins and outs of firearms. We don’t generally question how realistically games portray firearms because most of us lack the experience to identify what is and isn’t accurate.
So to that end, let me present first the top things gun owners said were unrealistic about firearms in video games.
This was the most common observation; even the most accurate rifles won’t fire in exactly the same place, even when given ideal conditions, a solid bench rest and an excellent marksman. Pistols especially don’t have the stabilisation provided by a stock, and therefore only have a limited practical engagement range. “Run and gun” style shooting is a good way to hit precisely nothing in real life.
The only firearm I can think of that is consistently shown as being less accurate than in reality are shotguns. Unless you’re firing something like bird-shot, a shotgun is still an effective weapon at 50 – 100 meters, especially when using rifled slugs.
Even the most well-built firearm will malfunction given the right conditions; dirt, sand, dust and water all make their way into the action of a firearm, causing it to fail in any number of ways. That’s not mentioning overheating, bad ammunition, or just simple wear and tear.
In how many games do you remember your gun actually malfunctioning on you? This is an aspect of shooting many games simply ignore, but which in the real world is a very real concern.
Lack of Recoil
Recoil happens, especially with automatic fire. If you fire a long burst of ammunition a gun without an effective muzzle break will climb rapidly. Machine pistols are especially prone to this, being almost uncontrollable in full-auto without a stock. Yet in many games, you’ll see someone with an uzi in each hand able to keep shots on target no problem.
Even with more practical configurations, you still have to factor in Newton’s Third Law of Motion: a bullet leaving the muzzle will push back on you with the approximate energy it leaves the muzzle with.
A basic example would be a game like Counter-Strike, which has an approximation of an AK-47 but has the bolt-handle on the left-handed side, and yet is shot right-handed. Many games that avoid licensing real guns, and make their own “kind-of-but-not-quite” version, suffer from this problem, having layouts or composites of parts that simply wouldn’t be practical or functional in real life.
In a more general sense, most games lack a system that takes into account the physics of ballistics: bullets drop with gravity the longer they’re in the air, like any other object; bullets will ricochet off hard targets unpredictably; over longer ranges, the earth’s rotation can even affect a bullet’s travel, through the Coriolis effect.
So why is this important, apart from being pedantic? Well, it neatly demonstrates how almost every game alters how shooting a firearm works in real life, to make them work better as a game mechanic. I’m not saying games should represent firearms 100% realistically, just that they very much don’t. Games are about having solid and fun mechanics more than realism. This is important because it’s the main flaw in the “gun salesman” and “murder simulator” accusations levelled at shooters.
Modern military shooters can’t train you to use firearms. This has been a concern in the mainstream media, and even in the games media. Games that people with trigger time see as having the most realistic portrayal of firearms, are those that factor in the ballistics model I mentioned above. Games which people describe as especially unrealistic have simple hit-scan weaponry. Call of Duty may be packed full of brand-names, but when it comes to the actual operation of a firearm, or the behaviour of a projectile, it falls laughably short. Straight simulation isn’t fun; most of the audience for FPS games have probably never even seen and never will see these firearms, and so accessible gameplay comes before the minutiae of how firearms handle in the real world.
Games that have:
- Real gun names, including the brand name of the manufacturer
- Fully accurate models
- Semi-realistic firearms handling, and
- Actual projectile ballistics
are almost non-existent. Most games that deal with guns are not too concerned with simulation; the only series I can think of that meets this criterion is the ARMA series, one of the few games that was mentioned repeatedly when talking to real gun owners. Even then, the game forgoes using specific manufacturer bands and instead opts for more generic designations. Simulation is niche; most games that have that level of realism are not in the mainstream, and therefore can’t afford to license real brands.
Surprisingly, the STALKER games, too, were mentioned for their inclusion of bullet physics, weapon jamming, ricochets and the general feel of the gun-play. Red Orchestra 2 also came up for its highly historically accurate gun models. These are seen as the best of the bunch by gun owners and regular shooters. The rest? Well, they simply have a loose approximation in many ways. Again, that’s not really a detriment, it’s just a fact; you won’t learn much about firearms beyond a surface level, from playing most video games.
Most people who’ve played a lot of games that feature guns, but have never shot a real version of that firearm, would have trouble with basic aspects like locating the safety — a procedure that isn’t included in most videogames. A game can’t teach you how to physically handle a gun, how to shoulder a rifle correctly, how to deal with recoil. It can’t teach you trigger control or how to know when your trigger will “break.”
Even with more simulation-style games that feature ballistics models coming closer to reality, it’s impossible to get the muscle-memory most experienced shooters build up. You’re not firing a gun; you’re holding a controller or a mouse. Even if you’re playing light-gun games, it’s like the difference between playing Guitar Hero and actually playing a guitar. Effective use of firearms is about repeated drills with your firearm, acclimatising to dealing with physical recoil, & learning where to hold on a target.
For the people I consulted, who actually carry firearms for defence or for whom shooting is a hobby, it’s laughable to think a hit-scan shooter being played on a controller or keyboard-and-mouse could train you effectively to be a marksman. Even as someone who only occasionally gets behind the trigger, the concept seems like an idea dreamed up by a group of people who’ve never even seen a real gun. You can find more useful instruction of using any number of firearms platforms from simply reading online sources or watching videos on YouTube. Those provide vastly superior resources for learning about real-world firearms operation. There is no mass-market game that serves as an effective training tool that can turn someone from a complete novice into an experienced marksman.
The 2013 Eurogamer piece “Shooters: How Video Games Fund Arms Manufacturers” written by “Simon Parkin” is one of the few in-depth articles that tackles the intersection of real-world firearms and video games. Problem is the article comes at gun owners and firearms manufacturers from the same alarmist tone we’re used to in tabloid media. Never once is the perspective of the everyday gun owner taken into account; the actual experience of buying, carrying, and firing firearms never comes up. Indeed, the article falls into the same rhetoric it is trying to decry, comparing licensing firearms to cigarette companies trying to market to children.
The most striking thing I discovered in my dozens of conversations was the absolute rejection of the notation that video games drive real-life firearms purchasing decisions, especially within the enthusiast community. I spoke to two separate gun-store owners who provided credentials to me in private, and their take on the issue was that most people’s primary concerns when purchasing a firearm are practicality for personal/home defence and price.
Another thing Eurogamer and others who ham-fistedly accuse game makers of being complicit in the perpetuation of gun culture fail to grasp, is that many of the headline-grabbing guns people would want to buy are either prohibitively expensive, incredibly rare, restricted by law, or combination of two or more of these. One of the most common shotguns in video games for example is the SPAS 12, a terribly heavy, impractical shotgun that was designated a “destructive device” by the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.) As such, they are very hard to come by, even in the U.S., and are mostly used in movies and video games for their iconic, “cool-looking” shape. A more extreme example would be the Pancor Jackhammer, a weapon you will most likely recognise as it has been licensed in dozens of video games, but doesn’t exist outside of a single tool-room prototype.
The same is true for the Barrett M82 (or the newer Barrett M107A1) that gets so much attention in the media and the aforementioned Eurogamer article, described in a way as to make it sound scary. The gun is mentioned 29 times by name. Whether the firearms industry thinks having their branding out there is good marketing or not, the rifle still costs in excess of $10,000 (USD) and about $5-$7 a round to fire. Like most items in video games, these are merely items of fantasy and wonder, rather than serious purchasing considerations for anyone but the most avid enthusiast. You can play Gran Turismo and dream about that Ferrari all you want; the fact is, most people will settle for a Honda Civic.
In short, non-shooters talk about firearms like non-gamers talk about games.
Like everything else, the debate around the portrayal of firearms in videogames is informed by the wider political landscape and discourse: one that is hopelessly clueless about the operation of firearms and the legalities surrounding them.
Most Europeans — and even many Americans — assume you can simply walk into a hardware store in the U.S. and buy a fully automatic AK-47. This simply isn’t the case. Most of the “cool” weapons you see in a game will be for sale on the civilian market as semi-automatic variants. This makes them lose much of the lustre of their fully automatic in-game counterparts. For example, the civilian-legal version of the P‑90, the PS-90, is semi-automatic only, and has a goofy elongated barrel to meet minimum overall length requirements, spoiling its iconic shape. Any gun owner will tell you that the U.S. does indeed have a great deal of firearms regulations that vary state by state.
The only place you could argue that videogame guns drive interest in real firearms is at more exotic firing ranges, where tourists can go to shoot things they probably never thought they’d even see in a safe and controlled environment. This is where most of the guns you’ll see in a video game, in the configuration you’ll see in a video game, are confined to.
The historic talk of “murder simulators” from the political right in the U.S., sometimes from the very same politicians who are very pro-gun ownership, has always perplexed me. I know video games are seen as an easy target, but only very recently does it seem to be occurring to the Second Amendment community that many people who play video games a) might be on their side and b) represent a substantial voting bloc, and even now, only on the very fringes. “Gamer gun” is even a derogatory term in the firearms community for an impractical firearm that looks cool or “tactical”, but is otherwise impractical.
It seems only common sense to me to combine the two worlds of anti-censorship gamers and Second Amendment advocates, especially as gaming becomes more pervasive. Liberty and freedom are both values these two groups value deeply and their cooperation becomes increasingly important as the existing gaming press embraces the same willful ignorance the mainstream media have been revelling in for decades when in comes to both gun ownership and video game censorship . Yet most of what we see is the same ignorance thrown at video games as we see thrown at gun owners. By abandoning their existing prejudices, the firearms community could find themselves an in-built ally in the gaming community – and vice versa. Common sense on both subjects can be very hard to come by; and yet, through reaching out, I’ve found a whole community of gamers who are gun store owners, police, military, every-day carry, collectors, and regulars at the range.
These two worlds already exist in conjunction, but the intersection is rarely being talked about, aside from in an alarmist manner. This dispelling of misinformation is important in of itself and helps in breaking down barriers between people. Buying a Grand Theft Auto game isn’t going to turn someone into a mass-murderer any more or less than buying an AR-15 is going to turn you into a mass-murderer. As both gun sales and video Game sales have been increasing in the U.S., violent crime has been decreasing. I have to laugh when a group of people exposed to either end of that ignorance stick wave it at the other group. We must realise both firearms and video games are scapegoats to prevent people from dealing with the more uncomfortable underlying causes of violence.
And if that statement makes you uncomfortable, perhaps you should re-examine your own biases. As a gamer or a gun owner, you’re often tarred with the same broad brush; perhaps you should learn from that experience and try not to do the same to others.
Don’t shoot the messenger.
Big thanks to Indigo Altaria for editing.
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