Gamers With Guns

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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.

Accuracy

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.

Reliability

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.

stove
An ex­am­ple of “Stovepipeing,” a term for when a spent bul­let cas­ing does not prop­er­ly eject from a firearm and be­comes stuck i the ac­tion.

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.

Gun Models

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.

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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:

  1.         Real gun names, in­clud­ing the brand name of the man­u­fac­tur­er
  2.         Fully ac­cu­rate mod­els
  3.         Semi-realistic firearms han­dling, and
  4.         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.” 

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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.

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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.

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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.

The fol­low­ing two tabs change con­tent be­low.
John Sweeney
John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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