Let's Talk About Guns and Video Games


#1

This article is part of a special series on the intersection of guns and games. For more, click here.

America is finally having an ongoing conversation about gun violence. In the wake of last month’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and driven by the energetic political action of countless students across the country, it feels like there could be real regulatory action taken for the first time since the Federal Assault Weapons Ban went out of effect in 2004. Unsurprisingly, those that would prefer to dodge such regulation have, in searching for an alibi for gun violence, pointed again towards video games.

In the weeks that have followed, old debates have sparked new and classic scapegoats have been pushed again to cover for the nation's inability to address a root cause. The Trump administration held an unproductive meeting with members of the games industry, then released a supercut of violent game moments. Nonprofit group Games for Change answered with their own counter video (to limited effect). Experts have weighed in via op-eds and personal essays across the enthusiast press and in mainstream publications.

Yet there is something else here too, something more than scapegoat-ism. Video games do not lead to direct violence, we believe that firmly. But that doesn't mean that the way guns and violence are portrayed in our favorite hobby cannot test our consciences or that we cannot be critical of their depiction. Across social media, developers, players, and critics have tried to work out their personal positions in this messy intersection of culture and violence. That messiness is what makes these conversations important. It is valuable to dig into those conflicting feelings, to try to understand our particular dilemma as lovers of a medium in which guns are the uncritical device on which so much action turns.

All of this why, ahead of this Saturday’s March for Our Lives, Waypoint will be running a handful of stories about guns and games. We don’t have a fancy name for this week, but if you click here you’ll be able to keep up with every piece tackling the topic. Some of these pieces will be reported by Waypoint’s own staff and others by some of our favorite freelancers, but all of them are taking seriously the idea that guns and games have a relationship worth exploring.

Far Cry 5 screenshot courtesy of Ubisoft

That is where I planned to end this note. I hoped to let the work of our incredible writers speak for itself and for me. And then, on Saturday morning, I learned that a close family friend—someone who I grew up calling my aunt, who aided in raising me, who was family for my mother when others had turned away from her—was killed late last week in a tragic and cruel act of gun violence. It is something I am still processing, something that I’ll likely be working through for a while. But it made me feel like a coward to not address the topic myself.

So, here is what I think: Guns are a shortcut to violence, and violence is a powerful thing.

Great art doesn't ignore violence, it actively explores the nuance of its power, using it as metaphor, as catalyst for major plot development, as the expression of a climactic release of tension. In the real world, the complexity of violence is even greater: A real appraisal of violence demands you contend with how it has shattered lives, yet also how it has protected them; how it has been a tool in the struggle against oppression, yet often works (whether performed or threatened, whether direct or indirect) to maintain the most tyrannical status quo.

But guns in games rarely carry the power of real violence. Instead, they gesture at power, the way a flexing muscle might suggest the possibilities offered by bulging biceps yet prioritizes first and foremost the pose. And as good critics, clever designers, and engaged players, we get very good at examining the pose. We talk about good gunplay, tactical complexity, and visceral action. I tweet about my love of the reload animations of Hunt: Showdown, talk on the podcast about the joy of Destiny’s headshots, I open my preview of Far Cry 5 by assuring you that yes, “the guns feel good.”

It’s funny. We never say how good the violence is.

There is a memorable section in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book-long letter to his son, Between the World and Me, in which he describes the reach, cost, and reverberations of the death of his childhood friend, Prince Jones, who was shot to death by a Maryland police officer in a case of “mistaken identity.” But there is another version of that passage, which he adapted for an online essay ahead of the book’s release, which explicitly expands the scope of his analysis. He writes:

Always remember that Trayvon Martin was a boy, that Tamir Rice was a particular boy, that Jordan Davis was a boy, like you. When you hear these names think of all the wealth poured into them. Think of the gasoline expended, the treads worn carting him to football games, basketball tournaments, and Little League. Think of the time spent regulating sleepovers. Think of the surprise birthday parties, the day care, and the reference checks on babysitters. Think of checks written for family photos. Think of soccer balls, science kits, chemistry sets, racetracks, and model trains. Think of all the embraces, all the private jokes, customs, greetings, names, dreams, all the shared knowledge and capacity of a black family injected into that vessel of flesh and bone. And think of how that vessel was taken, shattered on the concrete, and all its holy contents, all that had gone into each of them, was sent flowing back to the earth. It is terrible to truly see our particular beauty, Samori, because then you see the scope of the loss. But you must push even further. You must see that this loss is mandated by the history of your country, by the Dream of living white.

It was when I let myself explore my most specific memories of the family friend who was killed last week that my grief is felt most acutely: The warmth and patience of her voice as I chattered endlessly as a little boy. The fuzzy clicks of her TV as it warmed up, the animated visage of Batman appearing in time. The smell of my own sweat as I visited her with my mom after my taekwondo class. Her commanding posture as a poet, so unlike her more reserved stature at home.

It is this particularity of death (of all pain, all harm) that gives it power. Violence does not only occur between the involved parties. It ripples out into past and future. It crystallizes the steady streaming of context, bringing social history and individual mundanity into frozen formation.

Great art understands this and follows suit. It is why, in describing the horrific, yet loving violence at the heart of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the protagonist pauses to recall that “the yard had a fence with a gate that somebody was latching and unlatching." It’s why Kendrick Lamar captures the violence of self-hate in “u,” by describing his confidence (and his body) “breakin’ on marble floors,” his own voice splintering on top of dueling horns and ambient bass rumble. It’s why the first death in Alien doesn’t happen in a clean, forgettable infirmary or one of the featureless hallways of the Nostromo, but on top of mess hall’s familiar and cluttered dinner table.

Still from Alien

It is this particularity that is so often missing in video game violence, and it is that lack that deflates the power of guns in games. In big budget action games, and especially games that give the player guns and plentiful ammunition, violence is cheap and endlessly repeatable.

It is rare in these games that violence even feels like an act, it is more likely to be a mode. Game heroes slip between narrative vignettes and 30 minute long gunfights in which no particular enemy is distinct from the rest, reduced to hurdles on a track. A muscle flexing.

This is partly why I’m so interested in the cases where memorable, violence bubbles up inside of video games. Many of these examples predictably come via independent games like Amy Dentata’s 10 Seconds in Hell, which captures the frantic horror of domestic violence without ever depicting the event itself. Wolfire Games’ Receiver, takes the opposite tact: Unlike most first person shooters, it focuses on the raw mechanics of gun operation, pushing the fetishization all the way to paralyzing terror.

10 Seconds in Hell screenshot courtesy of Amy Dentata

In the AAA space, where games sprawl across dozens of hours, where violence-as-mode is the selling point, instances of memorable gun violence are much rarer. The secret ending of Red Dead Redemption comes to mind. Most of my experience with PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds', which makes each death an event. But it’s telling that the clearest example I have of a big budget game engaging with this particular sense of violence is one that I created for myself by playing with my own rules: I still haven’t forgotten William Jones, the eleventh person I killed in Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs.

Some of the articles coming this week will be about other people who’ve brought their own rules about violence to bear in games. Others will look at games that take violence seriously—even when they’re playful and joyous in doing so. A couple will address the overlap between real world guns and the ones in games. I’m excited for you to read all of them, and I’m also incredibly curious about your own feelings on this issue, so please, visit this thread over on our forums and share your own experiences, thoughts, and feelings.

Most importantly, though, I hope this week encourages you to play critically. We hop so easily from sci-fi battlefield to campy train heist to tactical simulation, and somewhere in is where violence shifts to “combat.” I don’t know that that is changeable behavior, or even that it is fundamentally a bad shift, but I do think we’re better for being aware of the moment it happens.

Follow Austin Walker on Twitter


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/9kg94z/lets-talk-about-guns-and-video-games

#2

I really appreciate Waypoint tackling this thorny issue. It’s something that never sat right with me, being anti-gun in real life yet loving shooter gameplay in video games. I look forward to working through it with the community.


#3

I’m very much looking forward to this coverage, as the relationship between games and all kinds violence is something I’ve often ruminated on in the past couple years.

I remember listening to multiple gaming podcasts one day and being struck by how casually people throw around the word “combat” when discussing the quality of a game. Even between reading this article and writing this forum post I hopped on to Twitter to see multiple God of War impressions focused on the combat.

Combat and violence are so entrenched as mechanical elements in the fabric of what makes a game a game that, even in this era where more “pacifist” games are being made, when they are absent from games it’s still considered something worth noting and viewed as a “unique twist” on gameplay.


#4

These words are going to haunt me in my sleep.

I’m really interested in the stories to come. I never took much time to think about how games represent the player’s power through violence, particularly with guns. Though I don’t have the same in-game fascination with guns as people who play serious shooter games like PUBG or Rainbow 6: Seige where the behavior of the gun makes a big difference in gameplay.


#5

I’m really looking forward to seeing what work comes out of this week.

Something that stuck with me for a while and stood out as pretty interesting was the first ‘level’ in Battlefield One, where you play as an infantry soldier holding a futile position until you die. When you inevitably perish, you are shown a screen with the name, d.o.b and the d.o.d. you then spawn into another infantryman and the loop continues. I found this to be a really simple way of showing the horrors of violence, not just war.

In similar vein, Cannon fodder to me comes off as a massively anti war/violence game, when one of your soldiers die their grave appears on a hill which then becomes awash with poppies, the more men you lose the more graves appear and the more poppies grow. a748abde9ec682b7b5175871e9aebda3cc2160eb2451d84641a91b5cb4764dcd_product_card_screenshot_450(the image is from Gog’s store page)


#6
TW death, violence, trauma

Thank you for writing this. I’m so, so sorry for your loss. Death is awful but violent death is worse.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Jessica Jones and metaphorical trauma. We all experience trauma throughout our lives, and I feel like there’s a bad habit (in the States at least) of people using trauma as metaphor. The “bad things” that happen to a character-- or that a character does-- are real life things that happen to real life people. People really do hurt and kill one another in the most violent ways imaginable. But people use these real life things as metaphor for other traumatic things, like divorce, or losing a job. Privileged people don’t really know what it’s like to kill or watch someone be killed so they (we, I) use those events as storytelling devices. I don’t know how that affects future violence, but it definitely feels cheapening when people use things that have happened TO YOU as a fun story, meant to entertain.

Anyway, that whole argument “well at least I’m in here doing this violent thing, rather than out there doing it for real,” makes me think that some people feel very possessive of their trauma-as-metaphor. It MEANS something to people to "get’ to shoot someone. (ugh, I hate this train of thought, why I did I go here lol)


#7

The discourse on violence in media and especially games frustrate me so much, because oftentimes we’re very hesitant to condemn violence in fear that something we enjoy will be “taken away” from us. I appreciate Waypoint taking a very necessary diversion from this closing of ranks, because a direct connection between gaming and violence is not as important as how it culturally normalizes us to violence (especially military violence and violence as conflict resolution). It doesn’t make us more violent people, but that doesn’t mean the violence is good.


#8

I can only speak from my experience as a white, working class male from the UK. I have had people Im close to be victims of violence and school friends stabbed. I don’t think games have desensitized me and normalised violence in life, quite the opposite.

To me real life experiences, and constant violence shown in the news is how violence has been normalised In my life. Just my two cents. I think @priya hits the nail on the head, violence isn’t just a metaphor or a mode of story telling in some people lives


#9

So sorry for you loss, Austin.


#10

I think games does a good at physical violence, understanding the weight you throw your sword or axe at. Many tragic moments in games where the character learns is usually from what they did physically. With a gun it always from a distance and usual doesn’t feel like it part of the character. I do think there are ways to connect the gun with you and the closest game that does that is Spec ops the line.
Great article and sorry for your loss @austin_walker


#11

Yes. I’m happy to see you folks writing on this subject. I feel like as a community, we’ve been defensively dismissing critique of gun violence in games as it comes across as to ceding ground to the push for banning violent video games. Opposition to that has long been a uniting factor amongst games enthusiasts. At the same time, critical thinking on the subject is long overdue.

After a shooting a few years back, I felt a strong sense that the way we treat firearms in much of our popular media is potentially damaging. In games, mass market games at least, guns are a solution, often the only solution, to solve the problems ahead of you. How many times have you been put into a new world and left to feel helpless until you find the first available gun? More effective guns allow you to progress further and conquer the increasingly difficult obstacles. That this describes so many games, an entire popular genre of them, speaks to this tacit acceptance in the medium of games that guns are universally a solution. How at odds that feels to the reality we’re living in, not exclusively, but heavily in the US, where FPS games dominate sales. In a way, it feels like a world view owned by those who would combat the problems of gun violence in schools by…introducing more guns to schools.

My thoughts on this are not fully formed. I have no wish to ban or regulate the ability of developers to create those experiences. Nor do I imagine that all the developers of these games are explicitly trying communicate a pro-gun ownership agenda. But I do think it is a failing in the medium that the role of guns in games are not more challenged, both in the products and critical assessments.


#12

What follows is a rough draft, never finished or sent, to the question bucket from spring of last year. I’ve cut out a few bits where I was still forming thoughts and walked away from it.

(If it’s not obvious from the thread topic, CW for guns, gun violence, suicide)


It’s pretty safe to assume that most people who meet me now would never guess that in my youth, when I looked like, acted like, and spoke like a much different person, I could disassemble, clean, and reassemble any number of firearms. I could hit targets with respectable groupings at 100, 200, 300 yards. I didn’t grow up in what most people would consider “the country”, but gun culture was definitely present during my upbringing. Hunting, skeet, and target shooting were just another pastime, another sport. I actually still technically “own” a couple of firearms, but have not touched them in nearly a decade; they are secured in a relative’s gun safe, hundreds of miles away. Like many things, I put that part of my life behind me.

Austin recently wrote about how critical the scopes in Battlegrounds to the combat, how they imbue the player with an advantage and a sense of power. That thought never crossed my mind, but this game does have me thinking about something else I haven’t really thought about in a long time, assault rifles. The guns of my youth were not assault rifles, they were shotguns, 30-06 hunting rifles, and occasionally a handgun. The attitude in the family was always that people who owned assault rifles were “the real gun nuts”, we were the sensible folks. But after playing a few dozen rounds of Battlegrounds, I’ve been wrestling with something that makes me uneasy, in that I kinda get it. This game illustrates so clearly how versatile and powerful an assault rifle is compared to more run-of-the-mill weapons. In Battlegrounds, you’ll always pick an assault rifle over a shotgun or a revolver. And that’s an odd feeling.


That’s right about where the useful part of the draft ends. I never finished it (and I even hesitate to post it now) because I never brought the idea back around to a point or an actual question that was worth asking.

I want to make a few of things clear here before I go any further:

  1. I do not think that assault rifles, automatic weapons, or anything of the like have any place in the hands of private citizens.
  2. I’m in favor of stricter gun control and think it should far be more difficult to own a firearm than it is to get a driver’s license. A nationwide buyback would be a great start to getting a ton of these weapons off the streets.
  3. I wrote the draft before Las Vegas and before Parkland, which have illustrated even further how deadly and vile these weapons are.

I only post what I wrote then because of its relevance to the topic. What made me so uneasy about the feeling back then was because it made me think of the influence video games, and violence in video games, can have on us. We too often glibly remark that many games are ‘murder simulators’, but it wasn’t until those early heady days of PUBG when I began to think about things I hadn’t thought about in years, all because the game was so good at recreating them.

Now, I recognize that video games and films don’t make us violent. America has a gun violence problem not present in other countries that have access to the same media. And the US doesn’t just have a mass shooting problem, it’s daily gun violence, and suicide problem.

I was able to get past that odd uneasy feeling and back to sensibility, but I wonder about people who might not. There’s a distinct possibility that someone went out and bought some variant of an AR because of that feeling in PUBG, or who would argue that ARs should be legal for ‘personal defense’ or some other inflated reason because of that feeling. I grew up around some people that actually think that. And that’s where I begin to worry about video games and the relationship to violence.

(Okay, I’m going to submit this now, and hope I’m not misunderstood.)


#13

I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot lately. There is a clear delineation between real-world and fictional violence, just in terms of the gut check you feel when you see it. I can play Wolfenstein for hours and revel in the brutality, but I had to skip over the “news footage” section in Jim Sterling’s video on this topic because I’m completely unable to handle actual violence. This is partially because of the portrayal, devs use a lot of tricks to lessen our empathy for our enemies and make the violence “satisfying” enough that we don’t think about it too much. And as Austin says, the other part missing is the consequences, the “particularity”. Even moments where games try to show this, like the courtroom scene in Wolfenstein 2 come off feeling flat, because the way games are structured, it’s hard to find time to really dive into those situations without slowing the story to a complete halt. We occasionally see how violence affect us personally or those close to us, like when an important character dies, but we are rarely asked to expend any empathy for any of the people we hurt.

That all seems cut and dry until I think about games like Hotline Miami. Maybe this is just a personal reaction but that game has a visceral effect on me. I picked it up again in the past couple weeks and even tho I’ve played it multiple times throughout the years, I still start feeling nauseous if i play too much. there is something uncomfortably realistic about the immediacy and brutality on display in that game, even tho it seems like you’re playing from such a detached perspective (top down, low-res pixel art). they show body horror in that game that I can’t even imagine someone putting into a 3d game, because it would be too upsetting.

So i guess my question is: Is this detachment from violence inherent to the medium, or as a result of the way it’s usually implemented? And does the way it’s implemented shape our view of what violence in media looks like/can do?


#14

I think about this a whole lot, and I am happy to see Waypoint and some other writers looking to examine the relationship between violence and games. Especially now, as this relationship is being cast in the spotlight by people and institutions looking to avoid gun control legislation. It’s easy to have a knee jerk defensive reaction when people start talking about the nature of violence in games, but there are issues, and I look forward to seeing the articles this week look to tackle.

As for this article, Austin’s description of how games use gun-play - and combat in general - as “flexing” is perfect and shows an issue with the portrayal of violent actions, and especially death in video games that I have found unsettling recently (and actually is touched on in @austin_walker’s Watch Dogs article linked in the article).

The means by which a player can interact with a space, and the beings within that space, give a message about how the game values that space and the beings within it. And in so many games, the players mean of interaction are solely combat related. In ghost recon wildlands, the only interactions I with the civilians - who the game seems to tell me I want to protect - are negative ones, you can shoot at them, you can grab them and throw them out of their cars, I’m having trouble thinking about any other way I could have interacted with civilians in that game. Of course, there are many other examples of games with similar interactions.

And of course much of these limitations in interaction are due to technical limitations, but I feel that makes this issue even more important. Our medium focuses a lot on how stories in games portray themes, but only really starting to scratch the surface on how mechanics and interaction do. I think many developers need to examine the means of interaction in their game, and what those interactions and mechanics ultimately say.

EDIT: On a positive note, one game that I think does a better job of this is Into The Breach. Because your victory in the game is linked to how many buildings are destroyed, your values in the game are actively linked to protecting the buildings and the people within.


#15

I grew up immersed not only in violent video games but in American gun culture. For whatever reason, the two concepts exist in entirely separate parts of my brain.

My best friend’s suicide with a gun started a long personal reevaluation that eventually resulted in me selling all of my guns and removing myself from that group entirely. But I still play violent video games. Shooting some virtual dude in the virtual face with a virtual machine gun doesn’t spark an existential crisis. Pretend is pretend.

I’m not sure if my ability to easily separate what happens in a video game from real life is obviously healthy or just a failure of imagination, but either way it’s how I’ve always been. I find the idea that violence in media might have a more than superficially trivial affect on violence in the world to be pretty bizarre.


#16

For me, it’s a mixture of the implementation and I guess the… understandings? context? around it. Because with PvP shooters, there’s this air of it being a contest between people – the fact that no one is actually getting hurt gets strongly reinforced as your opponents respawn (or harangue you over the chat or whatever). Respawn is implementation, but knowing it’s the same person coming back, that you’re having this contest, is context.

PvE shooters (and other “beat down hordes of AI enemies” type games) feel a bit different to me. Some of them let you skip fights if you’re nimble and/or sneaky enough, but often the end goal is just straight up Permanently End The Existence Of These Enemies (see: boss fights*).

*I’ve seen “boss” used to refer to final/major challenges in puzzle games with no combat or violence at all, and also the specific phrase “boss fight” applied to segments where the goal is to, e.g., disable the enemy’s escape vehicle – I find that interesting. But mostly, boss fights is Kill The Thing.


#17

Great framing of the difference between the performances or “mode” of violence vs real violence.

Violence is so much about how a single act intersects with the world. Video game violence is so often contained, isolated from the lives that happened before the act, and the effect on those lives afterwards. A real life is an investment across time, hopefully decades, and ends in the gentle divestment of experience, knowledge, and personality to those that surround that life. Violence is a vicious tearing away of a life on that otherwise long and gentle course. It is a sudden derailment and an unexpected end to the long and familiar arc we expect to experience.

My earliest (and quite naive) experience with video game violence was when Sephiroth unexpectedly kills a praying Aerith. I had ground my way through FFVII killing countless enemies, but this was the first moment when I had been able to fully construct an arc, one that included her past and looked forward to her future, and then have that arc torn from her and from me. It wasn’t bloody. It wasn’t sensational. It was quiet and sudden and the most violent experience I had had in my short 12 years of life.


#18

Context is a really great point, and that’s kind of at the center of my second question I think. Are there contexts in which media violence CAN be harmful? Is this a case where the people saying that “it doesn’t affect me” are just ignoring the very real harm it’s doing to others? And with the studies on this stuff, I have to wonder: what games are being played? Does something with over-the-top violence have more or less of an effect than something brutal and understated? Is there a difference between a game that glorifies violence and one that uses it as a tool? Do the percentages matter if there are even SOME people being materially affected? And maybe most importantly to us, how does OUR context as fans change the way we’re facing the problem? To be clear, I don’t have concrete answers to any of these, it’s just the thoughts I’ve been attempting to work thru lately.

EDIT: two other questions have been on my mind that i wanted to add. 1) is there a difference between gun violence and swords, fists, etc. and 2) is there a difference between 1st and 3rd person games?


#19

I’ve been thinking about this as I’m currently writing an essay on drone warfare and it’s explicitly stated by the American military that they are promoting the “Playstation” feel of flying a drone in real life. I think back to Call of Duty 4 which was such a fun game to play and something I rinsed for years with my mates and then I think about the AC-130 missions where the camera feed you use is the same as the one used in real life. I don’t know how to feel when such popular FPS’s are being pretty much openly used as a recruiting tool for an area of the military that is causing daily misery across the world.


#20

i don’t have all my thoughts together on this (im not proud of it, but i kind of avoided it until reading Austin’s piece), but my experience so far with Hyper Light Drifter has been oddly similar to what you seem to have with Hotline Miami. it’s not as intentionally high-violence as Hotline Miami seems to be, so like, maybe it’s just me.

wayyyyy too much about violence in Hyper Light Drifter

the game sees the player navigating 4 themed areas, not unlike the Zelda games. but particular care is given to give them the feel of places people live. or, lived, at least. the civilizations all appear on the verge of collapse before the Drifter shows up. and, on their quest to do… something… the only way to interact with the spaces’ occupants is fighting and killing them. so after every encounter, when the enemies linger motionless on the ground, it’s hard not to wonder. who were these beings i just killed? why did i just kill them?

without any exposition, the player has no justification for why they seem to be leaving a trail of devastation in their path. all they have to go on is a recurring vision of some previous apocalypse, the one that brought these places to their knees. that, and a vague hope of… undoing it? preventing another one? but the majority of enemies seem completely unrelated to that. they aren’t demons, just… inhabitants. i’m not finished with the game, but wonder if it might be a thematic choice.

in the hub city, hardly anyone but the shopkeepers even talk to you. dogs run away, citizens find somewhere else to be when you approach. in combat, the player can’t charge their gun without slashing something. usually that’s an enemy. but in absence of an enemy, destroying any objects in sight works, too. cutting down bushes recharges it as much as stacks of ancient books does, as much as skeletons do. and while it could all be just incidental low-res details & clever mechanics (the gun’s slash-charging system adds to desperate frenzy of combat), the whole experience has me doing a lot of thinking about what, exactly, i’m doing in these worlds, in a way i can’t say i remember experiencing before.

that might have just been my way-too-long-winded way of saying i really like Hyper Light Drifter. if so, yikes, sorry for that. the point of that was, to get back to your question, i think the way that violence is framed can dramatically change the reading. so while a lot of games have been limited to “Permanently End The Existence Of These Enemies” like @hope_shattered said, that isn’t necessarily the only option. and maybe it’s a naive hope, but i think that conversations like the one Waypoint is opening through this week’s coverage will eventually encourage developers to think more critically about what they make, and players to do the same about what they play.